I saw the movie Snow White & the Huntsman last week and was intrigued by the twist to this fairy tale. This Snow White didn’t just lie down waiting to be kissed and saved. She got trained in the art of war by the Huntsman and led an army of her fellow men in a quest to vanquish the Evil Queen. These archetypal changes for the roles of women is nothing new in movies and our pop culture. Remember Princess Leia standing up to Darth Vader in Star Wars, or Trinity fighting alongside Neo in The Matrix? And who can argue whether Angelina Jolie is the new James Bond or not?
The hero/ine is an archetype that is universal, but we are now recognizing that it is also gender neutral. Practically all new epic movies from Avatar to Harry Potter have female heroines as well as males heroes who physically go to war, fight injustice, and bring peace, harmony and happiness to the world. I find it interesting that different female archetypes throughout history were far more diverse and complicated than where we ended up in our current social model and branding messages. Even in the classical music world, we’ve seen classical trumpeters as stereotypically male. But women like Alison Balsom, who won the female artist of the year in Classic Brit Awards 2011, have trumped that stereotype as well.
I read an interesting article on New York Times, Boys Have Fallen Behind, about how American girls have achieved parity with boys in math but are well ahead in verbal skills and reading. The National Honor Society says that 64% of its outstanding members are girls. Some colleges even give special help to male applicants to avoid skewed sex ratios. How is that for a change? Among whites, women earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees and 62% of master’s degrees. Among blacks, the figures are 66% and 72%. One of my own continuous sound bites: for every two men graduating from college, three women graduate, and with better GPAs. This is real, and contrary to the popular belief that it may due to multicultural demographic growth in the US, it is a global concept.
The National Bureau of Economic Research outlines this beautifully in the article, Why Do Women Outnumber Men in College. In 2003, there were 1.35 females for every male who graduated from a four-year college. That contrasts with 1960, when there were 1.6 males for every female. This article suggests that the shift started in the 70s when women aimed to have careers rather than to follow in their mothers’ footsteps, and as a result the age of first marriage increased by 2.5 years. Factors include the availability of the contraceptive “pill”, the feminist movement, social acceptance of co-habitating without marriage and higher divorce rates. By 2009, the median age for the first marriage was delayed by 5 years (Do You Really Know 20-somethings). I believe it is a byproduct of cultural, social and economic forces.
And to top it all off….Sorry, Young Man, You’re Not the Most Important Demographic in Tech, either. It turns out that women are new lead adopters of the whole bundle of technology. The technology industry’s focus on men is just a reflection of women’s current underrepresentation at major venture capital firms and electronic/internet companies. And it is built on a plain wrong stereotype and a far cry from the reality of the new marketplace. To negate this stereotype further, this research shows that the majority of technology users are women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, not the 18-24 year olds. So who do you think you should ask about what the future looks like?
At a time when men are still hugely overrepresented in Congress, on executive boards, and in the corridors of power, do we think this will shift the future of our Corporate and Leadership culture? The Dark Side of Girls’ Success in School article in Huffington Post argues that it won’t unless girls shift the “good student” toolkit for greater risk taking and challenging the authority. This article attributes girls’ success in school to respect for an obedience of authority, careful rule-following, people-pleasing and succeeding in an externally imposed framework…qualities that will translate into their success at lower-mid-levels, but not as leaders and game changers. While there may be some truth in this perspective, I can shoot holes in it by women’s zest for entrepreneurship, which is all about risk taking…and decades of women’s movement which is all about challenging the authority and shrugging off criticism.
So when I’m asked on interviews whether we will ever achieve gender equality in leadership in my life time, I always say, yes, we will, and just by default of this cultural evolution currently in progress. Even the child care culture is evolving as men get more involved with this responsibility. And young families will end up with the spouse most qualified to earn higher pay taking on greater financial responsibility, regardless of gender. Again, a byproduct of cultural, social and economic forces.
Should we care whether boys are struggling in schools and underrepresented in colleges? Of course we should. The feminist movement, rise of women and the evolving cultures and archetypes were always about equality and partnership–to make the best use of human capital for economic success and to enhance our social models–but never about the shift in power, making one inferior to the other. Wouldn’t it be a better world if everyone focused on their own personal and unique strengths and passions, regardless of gender? I would argue that this will be the only way to increase productivity and prosperity , both at work and in personal lives.