I was at an excellent EY Network International Women’s Day event yesterday and was delighted that the conversation about getting women into senior leadership positions was not solely focused on the conventional descriptions of childcare and flexible working. As I left, the conversation was looking at increasing numbers of women in STEM areas (and men in more traditionally female employment arenas) and again, initiatives and mentoring were not the only thing suggested.
I proudly call myself a feminist because feminism is about gender equality and this International Women’s Day, I’d like to suggest that the way to true equality is not simply by initiatives by companies, universities and schools, but by changing the conversation in society as a whole.
So, here are just a couple of areas where I think the conversation needs to change:
The second a woman announces she’s pregnant, everyone starts to wonder what she’ll do when the baby is born. She’ll be asked if she plans to carry on working, and if so, will she stay on full-time. People will ask her what plans she’s going to put in place for childcare and everyone will have an opinion about what is the best thing to do.
Now as far as I’m aware (and I haven’t researched this so please don’t shoot me down), most children are still born to male/female gender parents. Even if parents aren’t together, there is still usually a mother and a father. However, how many fathers are asked those same questions? When was the last time you asked an expectant dad if he planned to carry on working once the baby was born?
Society as a whole generally expects women to be the main care givers; for children and for other relatives in later life. I know that even as a woman who earned more than her husband, and continued to work full time, I was expected to pick up the bulk of the child care duties. I also faced that disapproving look when people found out that my child was in nursery for 50 hours per week. I was a bad mother; my husband wasn’t a bad father though.
As modern women, we’re also expected to be committed career women too and women who do take a break or reduce their hours are also judged. One of the panellists at the EY Network event was a man who had taken two periods of parental leave when his second child was born. He shared that his commitment to the company and his career was questioned as a result. Rather than this being something that only men experience, I believe that this is a common view that a lot of women who work flexible work patterns experience but, perhaps, it’s usually more covert when applied to women because of policy and procedure fear.
Until we move away from the idea that men should not really be interested in family and their children, want to put their careers first and are, in truth, not as good at all that care giving and homemaking stuff, and the exact opposite for women, this situation will continue. In an ideal world we’d move from the idea that people only want to work flexibly when they have a duty to perform rather than just to obtain and maintain a good quality of life.
Girls like pink
Now, please don’t take this too literally. For me, ‘girls like pink’ is shorthand for all the things that girls and boys are supposed to like and do. This all starts so early. I’m personally not keen on gender reveal parties because in most cases I’ve seen, they start the whole gender identity stamping from before the baby is born. When I’ve spoken to people about these parties and knowing the gender of a baby before it’s born, they say that they are good fun (ok) and knowing the gender allows people to start buying gender appropriate clothes and toys! What on earth are gender appropriate clothes and toys! Shouldn’t we just have clothes and, let’s see, toys?
Yes, my daughter wore some dresses when she was younger, and she wore pink. She also wore trousers, shorts, blue, purple, orange, green…you get the picture. She even still wears hoodies etc. from the boys’ section of shops because they’re often similar and cheaper than from the girls’ section (you’ve heard of the Pink Tax, right?).
We treat girl and boy children differently and some of you may have seen the videos of children dressed in opposite gender clothes being treated differently by people who don’t know them which fantastically illustrate this (Girl toys vs boy toys: The experiment BBC Stories is a good one).
As this continues throughout early childhood and life, are expectations and norms being shaped that make it more likely that boys will go into engineering etc. and women into care and education?
And whilst a lot of this is known, not a great deal is being done about it. We continue to buy clothes with ‘Princess’ and ‘Good Girl’ written on them for girls and ‘Hero’ and ‘Think outside the box’ written on them for boys. A quick internet search for ‘girls’ fancy dress’ brings up pictures of ballerina’s, princesses and fairies, whilst boys get soldiers, pirates and police officers. We continue to show clever girls as ugly nerds and successful women as cold-hearted bitches in our fictional media. The media comments as much on the appearance and clothing of our female leaders as it does on what they’re actually doing (yes, I know men get this too but less often and the type of comments are different).
To make things better for women and girls, we need to make things equal for males and females. This means change for women as well as men and some of this may be hard. Some of us will have to give up firmly held views that our partners can’t parent as well as we can. We will have to accept that different choices aren’t necessarily wrong any more than they are a comment on the choices we’ve made. But by starting to have different sorts of conversations and by challenging our own views and behaviours as well as other peoples, we may get a little closer to equality.
About Steph Edusei
I coach female leaders and entrepreneurs who are too busy with competing demands at work and home, trying to do it all and focusing on
everyone but themselves.
They feel like they are constantly battling, fear they are not good enough and that they are going to be caught out. They are always busy and never have enough time to do what they need.
With compassion, honesty and a sprinkling of humour, I support them to take back control and step into being a high value leader who is competent and confident, by focusing on the things that really make a difference to create a high-quality life.
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