The female CEO and the stay-at-home-mother have often been pitted against each other in the media as arch enemies. Popular press likes to publicise the idea of the stay-at-home mother lambasting the female CEOs (or other high-flying career women) for “selfishly pursuing their careers while neglecting their children”, whilst stay-at-home mothers are looked down upon for perpetuating female stereotypes and being “bad role models” for their daughters, basically “letting the side down”. Yet, in my opinion, feminism is about choice in an environment of equal opportunity. The choice to be a CEO or a stay-at-home mother is a personal one, and I feel that either choice is respectable. The trouble is that the “equal opportunity” part is not quite there yet in our society, and to this end, although much has been made about the need for more female CEOs, I actually think that the stay-at-home mother (or a working mother that is heavily involved in parenting) has more to contribute to advancing feminism than the female CEOs (if they are childless or largely delegating parenting).
I watched Emma Watson’s speech for the HeforShe campaign in solidarity, having been a life-long feminist. What interested me was that at one point Emma describes her realisation of gender inequality when she was called “bossy” for “wanting to direct a play she and her siblings put on for her parents, whilst the boys were not”. I am presuming that it was her parents that called her “bossy” (as if it were her siblings, then why didn’t she just tell them where to go), which made me think about our responsibilities as parents in the pursuit of gender equality. Had Emma Watson’s parents; and every other parent in the world fostered and promoted the self-belief, confidence and ability in their daughters, and cared as much about their future academic and employment prospects as they did their sons, then we would not have gender inequality. Of course, Emma got the last laugh, perhaps because she was “bossy”. Good for her.
I attribute any academic successes that I have had 100% to the fact that I did not have a brother. Taiwanese parents of my parents’ generation had a strong preference for sons. My parents had told me that they had hoped especially that I would be a boy, having had 2 daughters already, and were disappointed when they found that I was yet another girl. They had no choice but to put their hopes and aspirations into us girls and foster and promote our abilities as if we were boys, capable of anything. My father spent time teaching my sisters and me computer programming and electronics when we were in primary school. I was never interested, but my sisters went on to study engineering and maths at top universities. Had we had a brother I am sure that things would have been different. Our brother would have been the one encouraged and burdened in equal measure with the pedestal, and we girls would have been left to cultivate a pastime. When I went to study at Cambridge, I was one of a few British Taiwanese children to get there, and it was no surprise to me that the only other female Taiwanese students that were there were ones without brothers. I read somewhere that China is seeing a surge of successful female business women and entrepreneurs and I wonder if this is related to the one-child policy, such that families are now invested in their only child, whatever the gender.
In the West, where the gender preference is less explicit, one can almost believe that the problem does not exist, but when you examine behaviours more closely, you begin to see that gender-based parenting is also pervasive. We can blame media and society at large as much as we want, but the reality is that we are all culpable: from the toys we buy, the behaviour we encourage, the expectations we hold, the activities we choose to do, the assets that we praise and our own day to day behaviour and language.
Even when we think we are being gender neutral, or are trying to be, we are not because gender bias is so subtle. How many parents of boys have actively gone out to a toy store and bought their son a baby doll, a push chair and a bottle? How many parents of girls have done this? From my inspection of the bedrooms of the little boys I know, I would say that very few boys have been bought dolls specifically. The parents will make the justification “Oh, he was never interested in dolls, he’s a boys-boy – so we didn’t bother”. Yet, from my experience of little boys with older sisters whom they look up to and wish to emulate, the majority enjoy playing with baby dolls in the preschool years (before peer pressure). Even more so if actively encouraged, as you would naturally encourage a girl. That’s just one example of many.
How many times have you praised your daughter for looking beautiful or commented on her clothes? How many times have you done this for your son? How many times have you praised your daughter’s social skills, whilst praising your son’s mathematical ability? How many times have you persisted with a 1:1 craft activity with your daughter even though she was bored and you ended up doing it yourself, while saying that your son does not have the patience for it and taking him out to run around in the park instead? When it’s a boy’s birthday party, how many times have you bought Lego as a present, while choosing a craft jewellery kit for a girl? In answer to that last question I can reveal that at a recent joint birthday party for my kids, the total tally on craft activity for Big Sis was 5/20 and 0/20 for Lego; for Lil Bro he scored a whopping 8/20 on the Lego, 0/20 for craft. We are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent of the above perpetuations of gender stereotypes; myself included.
This type of unconscious gender bias has been studied in relation to the lack of advancement of women in academia and the workplace and is thought to be one of the driving factors for lack of women in science. The King’s College London website has some interesting papers on this issue and says:
“Unconscious bias refers to the biases we have of which we are not in conscious control. These biases occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and our experiences. There is a growing body of research which suggests unconscious biases influence key decisions in the workplace and are responsible for some of the enduring inequalities that are evident today. One example is a study by Moss-Racusin et al (2012) which examined the assessment of applications to science faculties from students applying for the position of laboratory manager. The same application was used 127 times and randomly assigned either a female (64 times) or male (63 times) name. Selectors rated the male applicant as significantly more hireable than the female applicant. They also chose a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the selector did not affect responses.”
My view is that it is not only in the workplace that these unconscious biases are occurring. By virtue of being unconscious they permeate every aspect of our lives, including the parenting of our children. What effect does this have?
In my line of work, “behavioural management” is a parenting technique that uses discriminant encouragement, rewards and praise to shape children’s behaviour. It can be used to get a child to do anything from concentrating longer to eating their greens. If our parenting is guided by unconscious bias that encourages, rewards and praises our children according to gender stereotypes, then we are unconsciously using behavioural management daily to shape our children into gender-based norms. It is only by making bias conscious that we can act in a child-centric rather than gender-centric way when acting and responding to our children.
How does this relate to the title of my post?
A female CEO can improve the lot of women in two ways. Firstly they can inspire and prove to the world that women are capable. However, the reality is that aspiring women will look at the few female CEOs and scrutinize their lives. Do I have the same intellect, ambition, personality? Am I willing to work as hard and sacrifice as much? For the majority of women, the answer will be “No”. Secondly, a female CEO can influence the culture at the top and enact policies that will help women reach the top. However, these policies and helping hands can only be extended to women that have already climbed to the middle and are reaching up to the top, and at the moment, there are insufficient numbers of women in that position. We are forever told that the reasons that there are so few CEOs, MPs, establishment figures, is that there are a dearth of applicants. So, in my view the impact of a female CEO is extremely limited.
OK, but surely the stay-at-home-mother is the antithesis of feminism? I say, NO, a stay-at-home mother that parents in a way that promotes gender equality can produce citizens of the next generation that expect equality. Boys that become men that respect women, value women, understand women and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. Girls that become women that respect men, value men, understand men and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. A stay-at-home mother that enacts child-centric rather than gender-centric parenting can create a new generation of citizens that can change the socio-political landscape. At present, given the billions of stay-at-home mothers worldwide compared to the handful of CEOs, I would have to conclude that the future of feminism depends on stay-at-home mothers practising child-centric parenting. Unbiased parenting by CEOS, stay-at-home mothers and their partners/ husbands has the ability to give our daughters a true choice of stay-at-home mother, CEO or both.
This is not something we need to lobby for; it’s something we can enact now.
Gone are the “Mad Men” days of rampant work-place sexism, where a bank of men sat in offices drinking whisky bedding their female secretaries and coming home to “dinner on the table” prepared by their wives. We can be grateful for this, but to those that say that gender equality is already here I would vehemently disagree. Traditional gender stereotyping, unconscious bias and ogling still continue and there is a worrying trend of labelling and blaming women for their own predicament or non-progression. I put to you a collection of modern-day work-place sexism/ gender-issue stories that have happened to my contemporaries. All the events were taken with a sigh and a “That’s life” attitude; no one was sued, nothing major happened. But if in a small circle of friends this is happening day to day, what is happening across the UK, across the world?
My friend in the city worked at a Big Bank as a junior analyst. There were equal numbers of male and female junior analysts in her team, for which she was grateful. She complained to me that the female secretaries and team PAs ignored her and prioritised the demands of her male colleagues. As a female junior doctor, I empathized. Working with male junior doctors that were treated as the next George Clooney by the majority female nursing staff, I felt like “Troll number 2” in an episode of ER. Neither of us formally complained, we didn’t want to be labelled as “hypersensitive” and “not team players”. We got on with it. Maybe its just us, maybe its not a gender issue we thought.
Going back to my friend in banking, post 2008, all the female analysts on her team were asked to leave, except for her. In times of plenty companies are happy to “do their bit” on equality, but when times are scarce, it’s still women who bear the brunt of redundancies. Maybe in a meritocracy women just can’t cut it.
A colleague in academia was given a consistently challenging work load by her boss until she had children. Subsequently to this, although she was given flexibility in working hours, she was not given any challenging work, nor pointed towards challenging opportunities. She wondered if she had done something wrong. Because she wanted to work shorter hours and more flexibly, she was judged to no longer wish to progress in her career. Maybe Nigel Farage is right and women who have children are just “worth less”.
A friend of mine went to a conference with her boss and another male work colleague. On arrival at the hotel, her boss saw someone that he wanted to introduce her male colleague to, and she was asked to look after their bags. A lawyer friend of mine went out for dinner with her team and a client. When her team left, the important client made a pass at her. At a loss over what to do as the client was important, she visited the ladies, escaped through a tiny window and legged it home. Maybe women are just oversensitive, the boss and the client were just being relaxed, new age and friendly. Maybe women just misinterpret being asked to do menial tasks as sexism and “inadvertent invasion of personal space” as an old fashioned grope.
Recently at work, I was criticised for being “forthright and assertive”. Those adjectives are like a red rag to a feminist, as being “forthright and assertive” in common parlance is synonymous to “powerful” and “leadership material” for men, but basically mean “B****” when used to describe a woman. I found this funny as a few years ago I had been criticised for being “hesitant and indecisive”, which is the other female cliché of being “weak”. When (being forthright and assertive), I asked if this was a gender issue, I was told that being forthright and assertive was an asset, but that it should be done with “charisma”. This led me to think about charisma (Noun: the special quality that makes someone attractive or influential). The first role models that sprang to mind as being charismatic were Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and George Clooney. Forced to think of women, I thought of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Angelina Jolie. The men were politically influential with traits of confidence and passion, the women socially influential using traits of empathy and sexuality. This was a problem for me. My natural role models of kick-ass women who got things done: Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher are not portrayed as charismatic in the media (although I’m sure they are charismatic in person). Other women I admire: Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harmen, Karren Brady come across as intelligent, strong, committed, practical, sensible – rarely “charming”. The only person that I could think of that was charismatic and assertive was Camilla Batmanghelidjh, but I couldn’t see her working in a conventional workplace. Maybe women just have the wrong personalities.
For some men and women this is all an over-reaction, a fuss over nothing. Gender equality has been achieved. Yet, my feeling is that just because some women haven’t experienced it directly, does not mean that it does not exist (some of Jimmy Saville’s colleagues said he was a great colleague and never behaved inappropriately with them, some patients of Harold Shipman reported good medical care). For some women exposure to bias can become a career killer, not least because many women decide to leave their career than put up with this sort of environment. Most women rarely report these issues as if they did, they would be branded as “that woman with the sexual harassment issues”, “the woman that can’t tell the difference between a grope and “being friendly””. Sadly raising any gender bias or discrimination complaint is like signing a death warrant for any future job in that industry, and women become saddled with a “bad reputation”, whilst typically little happens to the perpetrators who may not even realise that they have done anything wrong.
I sometimes, do feel a bit sorry for employers as I think that the territory is new and perhaps they have not had training in “How women rising into middle and senior management would like to be treated”, in some respects, women themselves do not know, and women differ in their opinions on these issues. Take Kirstie Allsop who recently advised her hypothetical daughter to start a family instead of going to University. She was instantly lambasted by other women who advised women on the importance of an education. In a personal example, I complained bitterly when at a return to work post-maternity discussion with my then boss, I was told that “Babies need their mothers” and if I didn’t take a year off for maternity, I would “always regret it”. I felt made to feel like a “bad mother”, for suggesting I come back at 7 months. I was sure that my male colleagues on becoming fathers were not given the same “You need to be with your children” advice, and was worried that I would be left behind in my career. In contrast, a friend complained that she was harassed to return to work as soon as possible.
So, some would argue, it’s all “bad” women’s fault: “Women: make your mind up. You can’t have it both ways.” You can’t want equality on the one hand, then special treatment on the other. I think my response to this is that women don’t want it “both ways”; they want to be treated like an individual human being, and for their employer to be sensitive to their individual needs. For my previous example, I don’t think any woman would complain about an employer that said “Come back when you are ready to come back. That decision is yours and we will support you to come back whenever you decide to. Whatever you decide, it will have no impact on your career progression.” Further, most women would like their employers to be saying this to their male colleagues as well. Now with paternity leave in the UK a possibility, why should employers “expect” it to be the women that should be taking the time off? By employers actively encouraging men as well as women to take parental leave, this will encourage a greater paternal presence in the home and end the discrimination against 30-something women and mothers in the workplace; allowing equality in career progression for both genders.
The days of rampant sexism are over, but gender inequality, gender stereotyping and gender bias are still very much alive and well. For any female junior doctor who has waited at the (still largely female) nurses station behind all the male junior doctors to request assistance, to all the female junior analysts who have to wait in line behind all the male executives to access the (still largely female) support staff, to the women who are still being ogled and groped at by employers and clients, to the women who are being bypassed due to maternity and the middle management women who are given mixed messages on how to behave: more charismatic, less sexual, more assertive, less forthright, more empathic, less emotional – ours is a difficult path to tread. It is no wonder that more and more talented women are shunning the conventional work-place environments to start out on their own (Jo Malone, Hilary Devey, Cath Kidston) so that they can for once just be themselves, create their own work-place cultures and build their own empires on their own terms.
Please share your workplace gender issue stories; I’d love to hear them. And if you can think of any other overtly charismatic but non-sexual female role models, let me know.