What fuels gender inequality at the core? How to overcome?

Are women from Venus and men from Mars? Let me start by saying women and men are both from Earth.

I don’t negate biological differences. But I don’t believe we are different species from different planets.

Think of it this way. Many believe women and men are hardwired differently. But ask yourself how these different brains can have similar values, abilities, achievements, lives? And why haven’t been able to point to a brain scan to solve our gender inequality issues?

I don’t argue that there are more men in engineering, math and science. I suggest that it is not in innate ability, but socialization and cultural discrimination.

McKinsey Research highlighted research by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) across 40 countries, noting that the size of gender gap in math tests correlated to each country’s level of gender equality, as measured by political and labor participation of women. Countries with highest levels of gender equality showed the same or better performances for women (like Iceland), and yes, female students had lower scores in societies where they lacked power. Same findings were reported with sports, such as soccer, predicting women’s FIFA rankings based on power and opportunity for women in that country.

Gender inequality is really power inequality. Difficulty in fixing this issue is the chicken and egg dilemma. On the one hand, we know women need to gain more power to achieve equality. But on the other hand, it is gender equality that fuels the power for women. Besides, all the women empowerment initiatives haven’t moved the needle in the wage gap.

I believe gender stereotypes is a key contributor to gender and power inequality. Deeply ingrained gender stereotypes, in both men and women, directly impact the cultural expectation and constrain the behavior and actions of women, which leads to gender inequality. Research shows that both men and women tend to select occupational fields that fit gender stereotypes. This suggests that gender stereotypes about work result in a mismatch between interests and careers.

This is not a chicken and egg thing, and it’s something we all can do something about NOW. Let’s take a closer look.

Cultural Gender Stereotypes

Imagine a world where we talk about differences between women, as much as we talk about differences between men and women. Then ask yourself, why do we have so many attempts to rationalize why women and men behave and react differently?

Oh, here’s a better question: Who does it benefit?

There are many like me who bring awareness to this issue to overcome this obscure hurdle from prospering socially, politically and economically. And then there are those who push the issue to rationalize the inequalities for personal agenda and gain.

Let’s examine power from a cultural standpoint. Men are expected to project power. Women are not.  Culturally, power is associated with “masculinity”….how can we possibly expect women to project and exercise power without being judged differently?

Women often times are punished when they project confidence and power. Men are always rewarded. Feminist leaders encourage women to man up and negotiate harder. But multiple studies show, even with the same behavior, women get punished for not accepting the first offer. There are many research studies that prove this, and it’s not just men who discriminate against assertive powerful women—women do, as well. These are not innate abilities, but cultural stereotypes, expectations and limitations.

I remember a few years ago in a women empowerment conference, I heard one of the speakers suggesting that women should not sign their real name and go with a genderless name as a key in lead generation and business strategy. I appreciated her brutal honesty in what women face in starting their own business, but was disappointed by her solution. It made me think though…what if HR forwarded nameless resumes to department heads before interviews were set up.

We all stereotype and get stereotyped ourselves.  But imagine if you knew gender stereotypes directly impact gender inequality.  What would you do differently, then?

Here are 3 easy steps to test yourself and get started:

  1. Awareness and Behavior Modification: Watch your own language and behavior. Any time you find yourself stereotyping based on gender, STOP. Awareness is key. Behavior modification follows.
  2. Encourage others to do the same: make that a goal in both your business and personal lives. Tell others about it. If you are leading a team, make it a team goal.  Conduct workshops, if necessary.
  3. Replace gender stereotypical words like feminine/masculine with qualities and attributes such as, emotional/logical, collaborative/competitive, permission/protection, leader/follower, influential/supportive, big-picture/detailed …. There are no gender barriers in any of these polarized qualities.  And none of the personality test attributes are gender relevant.  Take a few of these tests with your team, and see for yourself.

This year, we can celebrate strides made in gender equality in American politics.  But we have such a long way to go.  We can’t always remove the gender barriers by focusing solely on outside forces and legislative actions.  While they are necessary and vital, I don’t believe we have paid enough attention to the fundamental rethinking of gender roles and cultural transformation needed to make gender equality a reality.

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