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