MELINDA Gates said recently, “we’re sending our daughters into workplaces designed for dads”.
How can this still be the case? Why is it taking so long for workplaces to embrace gender equity, especially considering that we have been working on improving equity in workplaces now for decades.
So, why so slow?
I have worked for almost three decades in male-dominated engineering workplaces, and have contributed to the gender equity issue as a parallel career alongside my engineering one. I believe there are three fundamental reasons why progress in workplaces has been so slow and why we will continue to struggle unless these causes are addressed.
In the workplace, gender and gender equity have been seen as a problem or an issue about women for women to solve. A solution will not be found until this sentiment changes. This is a gender issue which means it is an issue about men and women and this fundamental shift in understanding and action is important for progress to be made. That is, we need to engage everyone in the workplace, women and men, to become aware, understand the issues and work together on the solution.
Women and girls will never be fully engaged until men and boys are engaged. The Male Champions of Change program is definitely a step in the right direction but showing leadership in this area is not enough; it must be actioned by everyone in the workplace.
There is a need to engage men and women and find ways to make ‘gender’ visible to all.
The second reason for slow progress is that it is not widely acknowledged and accepted by society that we still live and work in patriarchal systems. We have centuries of beliefs and behaviours to overcome to change this situation. There has been some change in belief that has allowed progress: for example, the belief held only a century ago that women would become masculine in character and looks if educated. Such beliefs are hard to change, because as humans we have needed to develop strong ‘survival’ biases (such as in-group bias, which causes us to associate with, and favour, people like us). In patriarchal workplaces men will favour men, and these systems perpetuate themselves to maintain the status quo.
As a woman working in this area, I found the third reason to be one of the easiest ones to understand but one of the hardest to work on for myself. We are all impacted by gender stereotype norms and cultural beliefs. Thus, the third reason why change has been so slow is that women are just as likely to uphold similar stereotype beliefs about each gender as men are eg. think leader – think male, think nurturer – think female. This is even more complex as conscious beliefs can sometimes be overridden by unconscious beliefs. Stereotyping is deeply rooted, embedded from birth, and then reinforced throughout our lives both at home and at work. Stereotypes are often unconscious and thus hard to recognise which means they are rarely updated and are strengthened by our natural process of confirmation bias. So even when you consciously believe in women’s equal position in society your unconscious responses can be the opposite. Our unconscious mind is strong and because it engages automatically and much quicker than our conscious mind it can lead to influences in our decision making that we are not aware of.