When I first showed interest in Engineering as a career in high school, a teacher of mine explained to me that Universities want to see more women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. He told me not to worry about the grades; he felt I’d still have a high chance of being offered a place simply because they wanted to see more women in STEM university subjects.

Should women go into engineering simply to fill the female quota? Why aren’t more women going into this field? And more importantly, why did a male teacher feel it didn’t matter if I didn’t get the grades: was being female and interested in engineering all I really needed to land a place in an Engineering course?

While I didn’t go into Engineering (out of pure defiance), I quickly realised that gender equality permeates the business world in all shapes and forms.

Sexism and perception

Somewhere down the line we’ve made a fatal error in our history. We’ve managed to ingrain an unconscious belief in sexism in both men and women. It influences our decision making and creates a bias that, at the time seems right – a kind of instinct, if you will. But this bias is towards men being able to execute a better performance than woman. A study in the USA was carried out where science and tech orientated universities were given identical applications to both men and women in their faculty. Half the faculties received an application from Jon Smith and the others from Jane Smith.  The study uncovered bias towards choosing the male candidate over the female candidate despite them having identical applications.

There is no logic except that we have skewed perceptions of talent. This becomes obvious when we look at the pay gap between men and women – especially in different ethnic groups. The UK harbours the sixth largest gender pay gap in the EU where women are being paid 16.4% less than men in the same occupation.

In 2015, the pay gap was so large that many women essentially worked for free in the last 2 months of the year when compared to their male counterparts. That’s a 19.1% pay gap in the UK.

So we’re closing the pay gap, but why aren’t women climbing up the ranks?

According to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, women are generally given more generic training whereas men are trained for leadership. That makes a little more sense as to why men end up on top.

I genuinely think that once we manage to erase these perceptions from our minds and both conscious and unconscious sexism leaves the workplace, it will trickle down into society. Not just a mindset change for men, but for women too.

Leadership and target demographics

It isn’t rare nowadays to come across headlines like this: Business Gender Diversity Solved: More Women Means More Profits. Does it though? If that were the case, wouldn’t we need at least a 70:30 ratio of women to men in executive roles and wouldn’t companies be demoting men left, right and centre to increase their profits? No, I cannot believe that. A person in a leadership role should be there for their expertise, people skills and leadership qualities, not their gender. You can read the stats, but the fact of the matter is, by having a balanced workforce with skilled leaders, you are tapping into the other 50% of the planet’s population.

Here is a stat that cannot be ignored. In the US, women influence 90% of electronic purchases and 60% of car purchases. These areas are normally seen as ‘male dominated’, but let’s face it; women tend to be the biggest influencers when it comes to purchasing products across the globe. Even in a ‘male brand’, there will still be a significant number of female shoppers. Another thing to keep in mind is that gendered products – specifically clothing – are being bought by a more androgynous society. The gender straight jacket is loosening in consumer products, why isn’t it doing the same in businesses?

For leadership roles it is simple: if a man is the best candidate, pick the man. If it’s a woman, pick her. If they’re gender queer then pick them! It shouldn’t make a difference. Capability shouldn’t be judged on gender association. The bottom line is, workforce equilibrium and the most capable people in managerial roles will widen a company’s horizons and their expertise will create success.

Pregnancy and other traits

Women get pregnant. This is a fact I hope we are all aware of. Pregnancy leave causes:

  • Disruption to workflows and projects
  • Costs a company for maternity leave and recruiting
  • Maternity cover is needed; thus recruitment can be time consuming
  • You can never be 100% sure if your pregnant employee is coming back.

After all, it is said that mothers are more maternal than fathers and may opt to look after their child in early years rather than return to work. Ok, so nature got the best of us this time, but there are two things I’d like to highlight: flexible working hours and parenting.

In this modern age, flexible working hours and working from home are genuine options. It allows a company to keep hold of valuable staff, increase employee loyalty and potentially improve productivity. For a family or a parent with a newborn child, this is particularly appealing. Not only can they spend more time with their family, but they can continue working and securing financial security.

The other thing is parenting. Countries like Sweden have got this nailed. Maternity and/or paternity leave in Sweden is split between the two parents and totals 480 days of paid parental leave. Of those, 90 days are reserved for the father/partner. It allows parents to share the load. It also reduces the stigma of men choosing to stay home to look after their children.

Earlier I referred to men being judged on certain choices. When it comes to parenting, men must have the same work options as women and if they choose to be a househusband, then no judgement should be passed. This is both from former colleagues and by other parents.

Gender equality for men and woman

One of the most important things to realise is that gender equality doesn’t mean celebrating women. It means being viewed and treated equally regardless of gender. This includes stripping away the perceptions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ as well as allowing people to be accepted and respected for who they are.

This should be implemented with children. From the age of 4 both boys and girls struggle to fit in boxes because they already have notions of what they perceive as ‘male’ and ‘female’ jobs. Our actions in the business world and at home should pave the way for them to know they’re capable of entering any industry without feeling embarrassed. Why can’t a boy dream of being a nurse and a girl a football coach? The argument isn’t just for STEM and social care sectors, it’s everything, because diversifying our lives can only lead to good things, in the business world and beyond. Encourage children to dream and show them that all options are open to them regardless of whether they are in male or female dominated fields.

Don’t live in ignorance assuming that in the western world we are all equal. Address the issue and fix it. One by one, it’ll change the way we live and everyone will benefit from it. Ignoring bias doesn’t make it go away. Millennials are already leaving our history of inequality behind and starting to close the gender gap.

Let’s hope you do the same on your entrepreneurial journey.

 

Need some more inspiration? Watch this TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg or leave a comment below.


All ‘Opinion’ pieces are the opinions of the author, not Quick Formations.