Our guest blogger Laura Nelson writes a blog, Delilah, where she campaigns for equality and tries to quash stereotypes. She is also the president of Camden Speakers Club, which is part of a national association that helps people develop skills for speaking in public, and she investigated the brain for her PhD.
The United Nations has just approved a new organisation, called ‘UN Women’, to promote women’s equality globally.
And not a moment too soon. A worldwide poll revealed last week that, although people in most countries believe that men and women should have equal rights, they acknowledge that, in reality, equality hasn’t been achieved.
In the poll, which was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, many people – especially in some of the wealthier nations surveyed – said that men have more opportunities than equally qualified women for jobs that pay well and that life is generally better for men than it is for women in their countries.
We live in a society, at least in the developed world, where laws for equality are broadly in place, but we’re not achieving it. Very few women run large organisations, business culture remains a boys’ club and large numbers of women are shouldering responsibilities at home and at work simultaneously.
So what’s at the heart of it? The reasons are complex and subtle and part of our culture. Since the beginning of time, men have been the dominant sex. Men have been the breadwinners, women have looked after the children, and it’s been acceptable for men to exert their power over women using violence. In many countries, this is still the case. In many others, the cultural elements are beginning to shift, but it’s a long and difficult journey.
One of the factors is the expectation – of society in general and of women themselves – of what women can achieve. Often, in a room full of people – say, in a meeting or a debate – it’s the men who speak first and the men who speak most. This is regardless of ability, knowledge or eloquence. Women have just as much to say, and their ideas and contributions are just as valuable. But they are not speaking up as much – and they are not being heard. Consequently, men assume more powerful positions and women are pushed into second place.
Of course, this is not the only factor, but it’s definitely one worth exploring. What are the reasons for the difference? From birth, boys and girls are bombarded with stereotypes; boys are allowed to be more aggressive and climb trees, for example, while girls are encouraged to be passive and play with plastic teapots. A commonly held view is that boys and girls are innately suited to these traditional roles. However, the scientific evidence for this is not substantial, comprehensive or conclusive enough, and there is more evidence that experience itself changes brain function (read articles by neuroscientist
There are obvious differences between the sexes, but there is no scientific consensus that women are generally born with a natural tendency to empathise and that men are generally born with natural competitive streak and are better at solving logical problems. But if people believe these myths, is it any wonder that there are fewer girls than boys studying maths, fewer female politicians and more female carers? Stereotyping in itself has been shown to hinder people’s performance; for example, read about Professor of Psychology Claude Steele’s eye-opening work.
Some people argue that we should accept that men and women do different jobs, but they do not then acknowledge that carer jobs happen to be lower paid than engineers, for example, and typically ‘male’ jobs are held in far greater esteem by society than ‘female’ jobs.
A change in culture will be brought about only when these stereotypes, which block the progress of society and stops us benefiting from the potential talents of individuals, are crushed. Attitudes have to change everywhere – from the parents and teachers who must encourage young children to pursue a wider range of activities, to the media and population at large who must accept women as leaders without criticising them disproportionately to men. And attitudes have to change among women ourselves. Once we fundamentally believe we are as capable as men, our self-belief will take us a long way.