If we’re serious about gender equality, we need more women in leadership roles

Young women still see many obstacles to their advancement in life based on gender. Shutterstock

Women still believe there are greater benefits to being male, according to new research, despite significant improvements in gender equality.

This finding may come as something of a surprise, because it many ways women are doing better than ever. Female labour force participation in Australia has been steadily increasing over the last sixty years. Women are finishing university degrees at an unprecedented rate, and female representation in tertiary education programs in fields that were previously male-dominated, such as life sciences, business and law, have improved. In the political arena, Australia elected its first female prime minister.

Despite these achievements, girls and women continue to be subject to hostility and discrimination on a daily basis.

Many people still believe that sexist jokes and comments are acceptable in a range of different contexts. In workplaces, sexual harassment is commonly experienced and tolerated, even in professions such as medicine, which is meant to protect the well-being of all members of society.

The toy industry is increasingly gendered - many of the toys designed for girls encourage role playing that is restricted to home related activities. On television, in movies and magazines, it’s common to see women portrayed as sexual objects.

The lack of female representation in our federal parliament and particularly in the cabinet is noticeable, and Australia’s international ranking in this area continues to fall. In the presidential campaign in the US, there have been many examples of misogyny.

Girls’ perceptions of gender equality in Australia

Given this state of affairs, it’s not surprising that girls continue to describe “everyday sexism” as a problem in Australian society.

Between December 2015 and February 2016, the child rights development agency Plan International Australia, and Our Watch - an organisation working to prevent violence against women and children - surveyed 600 Australian girls and young women on their experiences of gender inequality.

They found that Australian girls and young women in their teens (15-19 years old) perceive gender inequality in their lives in a variety of ways. They believe it will in turn be a barrier to their careers and future leadership opportunities.

For example, one third of the 600 young women surveyed believe it would be easier to secure their “dream job” if they were male. These perceptions align with previous research that illustrates the instances of unconscious bias that women experience in workplaces, particularly in male dominated work environments.

Furthermore, 70% believe that their brothers (or other boys) do fewer household chores. This is supported by findings published in the OECD Better Life Index, which indicate that in Australia, women still do significantly more housework than men.

Implications for women at work and in leadership

If young women are observing unequal opportunities that reinforce social norms about the roles of men and women throughout their childhoods, it’s easy to see why we don’t have more women in leadership.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard is now speaking out about the dangers of sexism to female public figures. Gillard said:

… as a woman in public life, the violent threats take on another sickening dimension. Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily.

This comment demonstrates that even educated, successful female role models in positions of power are experiencing sexism from their peers and communities. This could deter many women from pursuing high profile roles.

The lack of role models and potential for discrimination and harassment are powerful disincentives for young girls considering careers in male-dominated fields, or in leadership roles.

Similarly, the current over-representation of women in domestic and caregiving roles reinforces rigid gender stereotypes that may negatively impact girls’ expectations for their roles in society.

Where to from here?

The Everyday Sexism report highlights the need for strategies to address a younger audience. These include engagement programs to encourage girls to overcome negative biases about careers in male-dominated fields such as science, mathematics, and engineering.

The report also recommends initiatives aimed at teachers and parents, as unconscious biases can inadvertently lead to boys getting more attention and encouragement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, or to girls carrying a heavier share of housework.

While it’s true that there are more men than women working in STEM fields and in leadership roles, we should not take a biological essentialist view to explain it. The content of such stereotypes may in part be driven by the (lack of) role models.

An effective way to address this would be through quotas for women in corporate and political leadership, as many other nations have done already.

An increase in the representation of women in these sectors would help to counter the current implicit and explicit views about the roles of women in society.