Workplace Culture

Why We Still Need to Strive for Gender Equality

This past weekend, my sister-in-law told me a family story I hadn’t heard before. When she was 16, she had a minor car accident. She hit a tree lining the driveway when backing the family car out of the garage. Her mother told her that she would have to tell her dad what she had done when he came home from work.

Her dad was a hardworking, serious man of few words. Running a farm meant he viewed a vehicle accident – such as the one my sister-in-law had – like a personal character flaw. Needless to say, my sister-in-law was not looking forward to the conversation. Both her and her mother anticipated an unsympathetic reaction. His response, however, was simply to say, “That was a bad place to have planted a tree.” Her three brothers thought she got off easy.

This story is a funny bit of family history, but it also demonstrates the deep-seated biases we have around the expectations of women, and how these differ for men. My sister-in-law’s treatment revealed that she did not have to live up to the same driving expectations as her brothers – partially because she was not expected to drive any of the farm equipment or trucks, unlike her brothers.

This incident happened 45 years ago, but we still have biases around women and what they are capable of. Globally, only 24% of parliamentarians are women. Where data is available, 34% of women hold managerial positions – except in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Pakistan, where women hold only 7%. These numbers represent the lived experiences of many, many women. And if we reflect on our current political and societal systems, I think we have all experienced gender inequity – whether we profit or suffer from it.

If we believe human rights should not be based on gender, then the statistics clearly demonstrate that we are failing.

Although there have been large advances toward gender equality, we still have a long way to go. According to the World Economic Forum, “At the current rate of change, the data suggests that it will take 108 years to close the overall gender gap and 202 years to bring about parity in the workplace.” That means we will likely not reach gender equality in my lifetime or that of my daughter’s. Even my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will probably feel the effects of gender inequality in the workplace.

This is both disturbing and problematic. If we believe that human rights should not be based on gender, then the statistics clearly demonstrate that we are failing. Gender equity is about fair treatment; it is about having access to the same rights, opportunities, and benefits regardless of one’s gender. The statistics stated above reveal we are not meeting the human rights of half our global population.

Our systems are set up in such a way as to perpetuate this inequity. A recent study by Harvard Business Review states that if there is one woman in your candidate pool, there is a 0% chance (yes, 0% – sadly that is not a typo) that she will get the position. As a woman among a group of men, she stands out as different, and human beings like and perpetuate the status quo. The article goes on to point out that 95% of CEO’s are men and less than 35% of managers are women, and that this statistic isn’t likely to change without intervention.

Lack of gender equality means the voices of women are underrepresented in the workplace, and in some cases they are not represented at all. This means we are missing out on ideas, creativity, and influence simply because we do not have gender equality. This isn’t just an empty platitude – research shows that diversity in the workplace is an advantage. For example, a study conducted by Dr. Thomas Malone found that if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises.

So how do we make a difference? I don’t think there are easy answers to this question, but I do know that the first step to solving any problem is awareness. We need to name the problem and be comfortable exploring it. And then we need to consider how we can start to bring about change – whether that is by ensuring our job advertisements do not contain gender-coded language or re-evaluating our hiring and promotional policies for gender parity.

The numbers don’t lie. It is time we consider the implications of gender inequality and work to make the future different. The sooner we begin, the better.

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Wendy Loewen

Managing Director , ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Wendy is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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