Last week I submitted the following suggestions in response to its invitation to have a say about a Victorian Gender Equality Strategy.  What a great opportunity to accelerate the achievement of gender equality.

Thank you for your commitment to achieving gender equality for Victoria. Thank you also for the opportunity to ‘have my say’ on how to achieve gender equality in Victoria.

Having worked in the areas of gender equality for many years, including initially working with women affected by domestic violence, and more recently with senior women and men in organisations, I am pleased with two recent developments: one, the increased progress towards equality that has been made in the last five years, and two, the strategic focus on achieving gender equality you are promoting.

What strikes me most clearly is the need for generational change. There is good momentum in a number of areas, but I remain concerned about the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, at the heart of gender inequality.

The World Economic Forum last year assessed that it would take another 118 years to achieve gender equality. That means that not only do I miss out on seeing gender equality, so too does the current generation of girls at school. Even my one year old and six month old step-granddaughters won’t get to see it. I’d like more and better for all girls and women.

Why the priority on generational change? Because current gains aren’t enough nor guaranteed to sustain over time without such change.

Three to five year olds have clear gender identities, with implicit beliefs about gender that are consistent with current stereotypes. Recent research suggests that gender stereotypes are not changing. That puts the prediction of (now) 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 organisational roles require STEM qualifications and experience, where gender stereotypes prevail and women remain underrepresented.

And gender stereotypes make a claim all the way from the bedroom to the boardroom: the more strongly a society endorses gender stereotypes the more likely it is to condone violence by men against women.

If stereotypes are strongly resistant to change, what levers can be used to accelerate change?

Understanding how unconscious stereotypes work is the breakthrough idea that can accelerate change. Understanding that well-intentioned people who do not have explicit gender stereotypes have contradictory unconscious (hidden) stereotypes that unwittingly bias their decisions is a key lever that can be used to good effect.

That biases might be inadvertent changes the focus from blame to curiosity, enabling a more constructive dialogue, particularly between men and women. And while women have less explicit bias, they share the same unconscious biases as men, and limit their own thinking and actions as a consequence. The ‘other’ gender, isn’t the enemy: our thoughts, the ‘thoughts that have us’, is our problem.

A story about twelve year old Grace

Young Victorian Grace wants to be a scientist when she grows up. She believes that it is very important for girls to want and be able to be scientists. She thinks that if more girls did science, Australia’s productivity could rise, instead of falling as has been predicted.

Grace was curious as to why more girls don’t do science, so she conducted an experiment to try to find out more. Grace asked her own science class, and one at a similar school, to complete the Implicit Attitude Test. The Implicit Attitude Test measures the implicit gender beliefs we hold. Most people readily associate men with science, and women with humanities.

Grace was shocked to learn that most of her classmates had unconscious gender beliefs. She did not expect this to be the case. In her research, both boys and girls had implicit beliefs that boys do science and girls do humanities.

One of the two schools has a special science program, and Grace was relieved to find that the girls participating in that program saw themselves as being equally good at science as the boys. Girls from the other school saw themselves as being half as good. The good news is that special science programs can help increase girls’ confidence in their abilities.

A story about four year old Lachlan

When he was (almost) four years old, Lachlan pointed to a major hardware store and claimed “That’s where boys go to get their hammers and nails.” Despite having a mother who is a software engineer and team leader, and a stay-at-home Dad (also a software engineer), Lachlan has unquestioningly picked up the prevailing gender stereotypes and internalised them.

Three 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.  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’. And we see that magnify over the lifespan.

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

To achieve gender equity in 117 years or less, we need more change in the class room, the school yard, and at home.

How should Government partner with the community, corporate sector, non-profit sector and other stakeholders to advance gender equality?

  • Holding a cross-sector summit on how to reduce gender bias in pre-school, school and university girls and boys, focused on raising awareness and identifying shared actions, could be helpful. What does the education sector need to do differently, and how can it be supported in doing so?
  • Develop teacher training on unconscious bias and how it affects teacher engagement, with students, and the choices and expectations of girls and boys.
  • There are a lot of terrific resources already available through local organisations like VicHealth and Our Watch, and electronically through organisations like The Representation Project – strong promotion of these to increase their dissemination and avoid duplication would certainly help.

How do we address the pay and superannuation gap for women in Victoria?

  • Transparency is key. Making public existing data-based gaps draws attention to the issue. Organizations of  >100 staff are  currently  required to report to WGEA on pay and superannuation. WGEA’s latest salary gap report is a great example of the power of collecting and analysing the right data, and then making public the findings. The Victorian government could provide similar reports and make recommendations to organisations on how to make pay fair, and to women on how to ask for fair pay.

What is the role of men in a gender equality strategy?

  • Women don’t own this problem, society does. Gender is about women and men, with gender schema prescribing one set of behaviours to men, and another to women: there’s a complementarity to roles that needs to be challenged. We’ll have made progress when both men and women can demonstrate behaviours from the full range of options without approbation. Continuing to foster the establishment and maintenance of male champions of change groups is vital, as they portray powerful men advocating for change in gender roles.
  • Male champions of change groups for School Principals and for men who coach children’s sporting teams would support these role model men in reducing gender stereotypes. Perhaps a cascaded community development approach that has a central coordinating body for each of the two groups, that supports sub-groups in metropolitan and regional areas would help to spread the word most efficiently.
  • Equally important, men and women need to work together on gender issues and solutions: balance on government boards is a great start for this.
  • To shift gender prescriptions for young children means more men need to be involved as role models, which means more men need to be involved as:
    • Teachers, particularly in earlier years, and
    • Gender vanguards, eg stay-at-home Dads.

What needs to be done to promote women’s health and wellbeing?

  • More of The Royal Women’s Gender Equity in Health project – help medical professionals understand the differences in women and men’s health through education and professional training eg Continuing Professional Development points systems should include a focus on gender issues.

What are the most urgent areas of gender inequality that Victoria should tackle first?

  • The Royal Commission into domestic violence is about to release its findings and the government has committed to implementing the recommendations. That will be a huge help. Crisis domestic violence services are currently dispersed, secret and have multiple owners – better coordinating governance and service delivery will make for more effective service and avoid duplication if it doesn’t result in too many petty political distractions as power bases change.
  • Next generations – much more change needs to be focused on children being born now, and ensuring they are exposed to role models, stories and principles that demonstrate gender equality. The Respectful Relationships program is a terrific one to support this – it needs to be a standard part of the curriculum for it to be effective.

How do we ensure we meet our objectives over the long term?

  • Set performance indicators, make them public and monitor and publish them each year. Assign Ministers with responsibility in their portfolio areas.

How do we encourage women and girls to take up leadership roles?

  • It’s a bit more of the same (and see further thoughts elsewhere):
    • At home – expose young children to gender vanguards, minimising gender stereotyping
    • At school – expose girls to STEM fields, build their confidence in their capabilities and talent, and highlight the applied value of STEM
    • At university – cluster female science students so that they learn in female majority cohorts
    • At work, early-career – make salary and role complexity transparent, and equal, conduct blind reviews of applications and evaluations
    • At work, mid-career – implement work-life balance actions, focus on women’s development needs, manage workplace culture.

How do we get women to participate in non-traditional careers, in particular STEM?

  • There are systemic biases that prevent girls pursuing science studies, young women completing STEM degrees and pursuing careers in the sciences, and women in the sciences from being given equal opportunity to advance their careers. While teachers explicitly believe there are no gender differences, their implicit beliefs may be gender biased, and this affects classroom interactions with boys and girls:
    • Awareness is the first step for teachers, schools and teacher educators. Surfacing unconscious associations, which may directly contradict consciously, even strongly, held beliefs is necessary. Teacher education should include this training, as should schools and teacher education bodies. Awareness of the incongruity between unconscious and conscious beliefs is enough of a catalyst for some people to change their practices quite dramatically.
    • Where that’s not enough, schools and teacher educators can focus on making teacher classroom behaviour transparent. Monitoring teacher classroom interactions with students and providing them with feedback on time spent responding to male versus female students, and the nature of the responses (including messages regarding competence) helps identify bias. In science classrooms, teachers spend more time interacting with boys, provide them with more information about their competence and are more encouraging, and this affects career choices of equally talented boys and girls. Again, this kind of transparency can be pretty motivating. If it’s not, teacher performance standards might encourage more balanced engagement across genders.
    • Many businesses have introduced targets to guide manager behaviour. In a school environment, targets for the number of girls who pursue science-based study streams, who graduate with particular grades in science subjects, or who enrol in STEM-based degrees are examples of specific actions that can be considered.

I look forward to a more equitable future for all.


Photo credit: ‘Together they made a visual valentine’ Mike Flickr CC

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