As our working year commences and children settle into their new school year, what commitments will you make to help achieve gender balance? And what might you do to accelerate its achievement in fewer than 117 years, the current prediction from the World Economic Forum?

2015 saw increased momentum towards gender equality in the board room and across organizations, a sign of great progress.

If we want to achieve balance in our board rooms and in leadership roles, and for that to be sustainable over time, we need to pay closer attention to what five year olds are learning about gender and how it shapes their identities. To achieve gender equity in 117 years or less, we need more change in the class room, the school yard, and at home.

Five year olds have clear gender identities, with implicit beliefs about gender that are consistent with stereotypes. That puts the prediction of 117 years on shaky ground. The prediction is based on the number of women in senior leadership roles steadily increasing. That steady increase will hit a roadblock unless the pool of aspiring leaders gradually shifts its composition, ensuring more women are ready for senior leadership roles. Many senior organizational roles require STEM qualifications and experience, where gender stereotypes prevail and women remain underrepresented.

Five year old boys and girls understand gender expectations traditionally attributed to boys and girls. They are not just aware of and so able to describe the expectations and attributions, they also hold them implicitly. Girls’ self esteem is more strongly related to their gender identity.

And as Sheryl Sandberg pointed out at the recent Davos summit, we assign home tasks differentially to boys and girls, contributing to a ‘toddler wage-gap’.

Five year olds are being shaped by the same beliefs and expectations that shape our current business practices, which places the nature of the change required in jeopardy.

What might you do to contribute to sustainable change?

1. Pay more attention to providing a full range of options and choices to both boys and girls. Assign tasks at home and at school with deliberate randomness.  Self-monitor.

2. Expose girls and boys to opportunities and role models that challenge traditional choices.

3. Encourage boys and girls to experiment with and experience the full range of behaviours: girls can be equally focused on their own needs and concerned for others, understanding or tough. Boys can be empathic and task oriented, independent or submissive. Allow them to build a broader repertoire of styles and responses that cross gender arcs, and we’ll all be better off.

While progress towards gender equality has accelerated recently, there are many systemic challenges that remain.

If the current generation of children continues to reflect the gender stereotypes we hold, the choices they make about their careers will be similarly limited.

These challenges can be overcome with awareness, vigilance, and action. Girls and boys can enjoy a broader array of options with fewer limitations caused by stereotypes. We’ll then do better than 117 years, and perhaps today’s five year olds will experience equality in their lifetimes.

As my five year old step-grandson would say, let’s do it! Join me to discuss ways to accelerate achievement of equality at The Melbourne Forum on 10th March at 5.15pm.