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Almost 20 years ago I experienced one of those initiatives encouraging “women in science and engineering.” Females who studied a science/technical subject at university level were given a pat on the back for doing it, offered a female mentor, told that women were unfairly treated and had to fight back to address the inequality and some were given part-time jobs at the university (while the employer got brownie points for having employed a female correcting their staffing gender imbalance).

All the while I witnessed this program I couldn’t help but feel something was wrong. I finally think I’ve realised what it was.

All the “women in science” endeavours I’ve seen were trying to correct a gender imbalance, prove that women were “as good as men” (if not better), particularly in traditional male subjects and fields. The initiatives wanted to do good things – like give women a chance in the workforce, show that they should have the same chance and pay in high earning careers and be promoted as much as men etc. etc.

But at another level I’ve come to realise that these initiatives were fundamentally flawed.

They were flawed because in many ways they were merely reinforcing all the male rules and steroetypes that surrounded technical jobs (and getting ahead in employment in general). The women’s initiatives were so keen for women to be given a chance that they ended up asking women to change themselves, to play male games the male way.

The initiatives were very enthusiastic about helping women change, be more assertive, be more professional, be more of a leader, etc. They told you how to correct your voice, dress to be respected by male peers and more. But in this enthusiasm they merely put women in the position of HAVING to catch up with the men. Women were “helped” to develop male characteristics – from strong leadership direction (whatever that is), to aggressive bargaining strategies.

Women were not allowed to be women. And if you couldn’t play “man” then I’m afraid you still missed out despite the “gender balancing” initiatives.

How refreshing would it be if gender equality initiatives promoted women’s quality in the workforce, not by trying to make women as “powerful” as men, but by pushing for women to be women in the workforce. Female abilities and character strengths – like compassion, empathy, patience, tolerance, multi-tasking, intuition, gentleness and COOPERATING – are so often at odds with competitive workplace “getting ahead”. What if gender equality initiatives really did understand that females bring different things to the workplace, and pushed for those differences to be valued?

Not only do women bring different character strengths and abilities (that are so often under valued) but they operate differently. From being better communicators (and needing more time to communicate to avoid misunderstandings), to being able to multi-task more effectively. Women’s physiology is even different. Somewhere I’m sure I’ve read that less than 6 hours a day is the optimal length of working day for women (with productivity declining after that!). And once upon a time women were allowed to lie down in the workplace and have a rest at certain times of the month. Are women allowed to be women in the workforce? No, they have to try and be like men.

Those observations were 20 years ago. Perhaps things have changed today and the STEM gender balancing of the 21st century is a little different. But I’m afraid I suspect that “equality” still means women have to become more like men, operate according to male rules, play the male games and basically leave behind the things that a woman would bring to a workplace. And if women can’t change to become more like men then, as has always been the case, they can’t play the game, don’t have the chance and are left out of the workplace.

Have you experienced gender inequality in your workplace? Please share in the comments below.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

  • lol i feel like my grandmother’s generation fought for more equality and IT WORKED so therefore we need to turn our attentions towards other things. Western women don’t need liberating, we can do what we want. We will never be the same as a man physically because we are built biologically different for a reason, but there is no discrimination against women in workplaces anymore. I know women working typical “male” jobs and they love it. One of my friends drives trucks in the mines and has no issues with disrespect etc.

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  • No I have not experienced gender inequality in my workplace. It is disappointing that it still exists though. Everyone should be treated equally.

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  • No, I haven’t experienced gender inequality in my work place. I worked as psychiatric nurse on psychiatric wards and hospitals in the Netherlands and pretty much each and every worker brings in different character strengths and abilities and knowing and using them was encouraged. Not only that, knowing and using your different character strengths and abilities is totally necessary in this line of work.

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  • I really wish that in an article talking about gender inequality it was not stated that you read that somewhere that a 6 hour day was the optimal work day for a woman and that at one time women were able to lay down during the day at certain times of the month and then asking if women were allowed to be women as if this is what a female worker is like. Statements like this re enforce gender bias and difficulty for women in the workforce. Disappointed!

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  • I have never experienced what you believe and I have now been out of the workforce for over 20 years. But I held down HR Manager and Labour Relations Manager, was sent on courses to implement these roles effectively and had an absolutely wonderful time for just on 30 years in the workforce. I believe that because I knew what I was doing and was good at it, then none of the male counterparts could get under my skin even though some tried. We still meet annually even though the firm is no longer a viable one due to UK Head Office deciding to no longer operate here, and we all still get on really very well.

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  • I was offered an amazing position – my dream job. However during the process I very stupidly admitted to being a single mother during an interview for this high paying position on a mostly male sales team. Suddenly the offer was rescinded and they had decided to wait before filling the empty spot. I learned to never again mention my parental status in an interview – meaning that a conversation about my different needs can’t be had because of sexist attitudes.

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  • I’m lucky not to have experienced yet. Probably one of the most important way of battling this issue is that women know their own value and nothing can break that down, also gender inequality not.

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  • Fortunately, where I work, each department has a good and fair mix of both males and females, and females are encouraged to apply for higher positions and leadership roles. In a male-dominated industry, it’s great to see and very refreshing.

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  • Yes I have, many years ago. First woman in an all male IT group. I remained who I was and I’m proud of it

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  • Yes, I agree hat in many ways we still expect women to behave like men – and then punish them for being Unfeminine.

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  • Characteristics are not gender specific. I know plenty of strong women that are leaders in their areas of work, yet still communicate and act with compassion. It is about individual leadership, some people have good qualities that inspire people and some people are deficit in good leadership qualities, which applies to women and men. I do not believe it is about men or women, it is about qualities and individuals. No one should have to play anyone’s game – always play your own game.

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  • In Iceland women play a leading role in government, banking, corporate business etc. and this is not because of filling quotas, but because women’s abilities are recognised. It may take a few more generations, but I believe women will be recognised for the skills they bring to different industries.


    • Good to share these stories of the experiences of women all over the world.

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  • I’m lucky enough I haven’t but unfortunately it happens far too often.

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  • Absolutely, women should be treated as women and treated like they can do anything. Self fulfilling prophecy and all that.

    Reply

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