Gender equality has come a long way in the past few decades, but we are not making as much progress as we think. For instance, a 2017 study of 12 European countries concluded little change in workplace gender integration. It’s the same narrative in Australia, as well as in Singapore, where men still earn nearly 20 to 40% more than women. As a leader of a movement focused on women in workplaces, I’ve heard of many first-hand experiences of how women with better performance track records are passed up for promotions – incidents like this reflect deep-set unconscious bias and gender stereotypes that are prevalent across many industries.
A good starting point is to be aware of how such biases can manifest in a workplace setting and influence our decisions. Have you, for example, noticed how an idea brought up by a woman sometimes only gets noticed when repeated by a male colleague? Research also describes a tendency to overestimate the performances of men. In comparison, women tend to be evaluated more harshly, and with less attention on their potential – almost as if they have to prove themselves against these biases.
Moreover, the qualities perceived as necessary for professional success are stereotypically masculine. But being assertive, competitive and ambitious can ironically also trigger pushback for women. Now that I’m in a leadership position, I find myself needing to practise “gender judo” in order to promote my ideas and voice my opinion: it’s a judo of taking on more feminine traits most of the time so that I can be assertive when needed. Being overly feminine could result in being perceived as likeable but not competent and being overly masculine ends up being seen as competent but not well-liked. The balancing act is a tightrope walk.
Current issues are complex and multifaceted, and addressing them requires intentional effort from multiple actors – from organisations, to companies, to individuals themselves. While we do see more women negotiating for equal pay and mentorship, and more men willing to listen and engage in dialogue, the conversations are the same as we had years ago, just on a larger scale.
“We need to…create a global culture where opportunities, perceptions and recognition are equal”
Ultimately, time is needed for change in culture and behaviour, and it takes a concerted and continuous effort from all levels. Women remain heavily underrepresented in leadership roles, and the path to meritocracy is still being built. In the Asia-Pacific region, there is only one woman in leadership for every four men, and there are still implicit norms around many jobs that segregate these into “jobs for the men” and “jobs for the women”.
We need to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and scrutinise what is needed to create a global culture where opportunities, perceptions and recognition are equal. If we can identify what the existing cultural markers and biases are, we will not only change this culture, but also create a pipeline of diverse and inspiring leaders for the future.
This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine