Are we really still talking about this?
It was a regular afternoon in the Panayi household. I was at home with my eldest daughter Ellyana, 6 years old and in her first year of primary school. The afternoon news was on the TV and a segment came on about the US Presidential Election. I said to Ellyana, “This is so exciting. You know how in Australia we have a Prime Minister, well in America they have a President, and soon they might have their first ever female President!” Her eyes widened in excitement as she asked me the Presidential hopeful’s name. I then said to her, “Why do you think that a woman has never been President before?” and her answer shocked, saddened, confused and even made me feel guilty. She said, “Because men are smarter?”
I have not stopped thinking about her response ever since. With the responsibility of raising two children – both girls (that fact is important in the context of this discussion!), we have always been conscious of the messages we send, the encouragement we give, the labels we use and our words and actions when it comes to gender roles. In fact, I like to think that gender isn’t even part of the equation in our efforts to raise these two gorgeous people. I’m proud of the fact that I’m a business owner and a mum, and can role model both of those parts of my life for my children. I questioned whether I had ever said anything to make her respond in that way, what she had witnessed in our home or at school for the thought to even come into her head.
So I started to consider why Ellyana answered in that way, and what’s going on consciously and unconsciously in families, schools and in society to perpetuate this thinking from such an early age and drive the real issue of the Gender Wage Gap in our workplaces as these children grow into adults. Here are some interesting facts I found, which did surprise me:
- By the age of 4-5 children have already developed a strong sense of gender roles – so before children even start school they have a formed idea of what a male vs. females role is in the home, in society, in the workplace
- In picture books for preschool age children the male characters played the more active and explorative role and the female characters played the more passive and social role – how does this then shape our thinking at a young age about “what we want to be when we grow up?”, perhaps leading us into professions which are dominated by women, and which potentially might impact the salary we can attract
- Gendered messages and behavior is present in preschool television programming particularly in themes of leadership, appearance, gendered roles, occupations and play
- A study examined 4-5 year old children’s predictions of the gender of people carrying out common activities and occupations. The children's responses revealed strong gender stereotypes. They also found that children’s predictions of their own future occupations indicated stereotypes, with the females more likely to reject “masculine activities”
Of course, every family, every community group, every parent, every school, every teacher is different, and provides a diverse view of society. But it makes we wonder whether these stereotypical gender specific roles that many of us are exposed to from such an early age develop into unconscious bias when we enter the big bad adult world and ultimately has an impact on the gap between what the genders are paid.
With so many of these gender role biases all around us, what can we do as individuals, as family members, as friends, as colleagues, as leaders, as employers to change this thinking? Here’s a few of my ideas:
- Consider how we are passing down these stereotypes to the next generation – in the language we use, in the stories we tell, in the subtle and nearly unrecognizable difference in how we treat boys and girls
- Keep setting examples, be role models and catalysts for change in your home, in your community, in your team, in your organisation, in your sporting group, in your church. This is relevant regardless of your own gender
- Challenge and question yourself – unconscious bias is exactly that, we aren’t even conscious we hold certain views and that they influence the way we see the world
- In your role as an influencer of others – as a parent, a manager, a teacher, a carer, a coach – help others to see their potential, their strengths and their greatness.
The end of the story is that I said to Ellyana, “No, it’s not because men are smarter than women, women can do whatever they want”.
So are we really still talking about the Gender Wage Gap – yes! Let’s not stop talking about it.
Vanessa is a founding FlexCoach and an experienced Leadership and Behavioural coach, Vanessa has nearly 20 years’ experience in organisational development roles up to Executive level. Vanessa’s practice in this area extends across a range of industries and countries. Her passion is in developing individuals for true personal growth and satisfaction, and for the benefit of both the organisation and those that have a work or personal relationship with the individual.
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