Gender Equality: A Work In Progress

(By Alexandra Kilian, Queen’s University)


 

On February 2nd 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps departed her post after 10 years of service. Having left behind a distinguished legacy, she presented Canada with a mission: to hire more women. Her plea reflects a problem of gender inequality plaguing not only Canada’s justice system, but also the upper management levels of every profession in every country around the world. Gender inequality is an issue of public concern with far-reaching political, social, and economic consequences for individuals, corporations, and countries alike.
Women in Canada are viewed as equal to men in the eyes of the law. As a result of the determination and hard work of feminists of previous generations, young girls are entering adulthood with a wide range of opportunities concerning their educational, professional, and personal lives. Because of educational equality, it is easy to overlook subtle societal symptoms of gender inequality that women still face.
Although women make up approximately half of the world’s population, they are still severely underrepresented in almost every professional sector of society. As the World Economic Forum noted, no country in the world has succeeded in closing its gender gap . This means that in most countries, a large portion of the human capital is underutilized. Various institutional reports paint a grim picture. A report by the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action and the Canadian Labour Congress showed that university teaching positions are male-dominated, with men being twice as likely to receive full time appointment as women with the same degree. In the business world, only 4% of CEOs and 15% of board members are women. Lastly, only about 19% of parliamentarians around the world are women As a result, women’s issues and the gender gap are rarely at the forefront of political discussions. Unfortunately, progress in shrinking the gender gap seems to have stalled. A recent review of the 2012 U.S Census indicated that the gender gap is at the same level as it was in 2002. The overall prognosis is grim. Based on the 2012 Census, equal pay will not be reached before 2058. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that the empowerment of women is not only a women’s issue. Gender equality directly correlates with increased success and benefits every sector of society.
So, why, if women have equal rights and apparently equal opportunities, do they not reach the same level of professional success as men? The roots of the problem are old and complex. Let’s start with some classic patriarchal values, which can be viewed as those that champion the superiority of males over females. As the world moves to replace this view, manifestations of male superiority become more difficult and controversial to identify. Yet, these values still infiltrate almost every aspect of society and manifest themselves as gender roles. Certain ideas, propagated through media and education, become so pervasive and natural that many subconsciously identify them as correct. From a young age, girls are presented with an idealistic image of a caring and nurturing woman. Conversely, boys learn to be strong, confident and independent. These traditionally male characteristics are coincidentally those of a strong leader. Because these traits are nurtured and encouraged from a young age, young boys grow to have more opportunities to be successful and confident leaders. Studies from various academic institutions, including the University of Maineat Orono and the University of Indiana have demonstrated that women in various settings systematically underestimate their abilities and attribute their success to external factors. In contrast, men will more often credit their own abilities and efforts for their success. The lack of confidence often leads to the feeling of inferiority and the decision not to negotiate higher wages with employers. The Harvard Business Review estimated that an estimated 57% of men negotiate for salary with employers; only 7% of women do the same. In a world where money often equals power, this fuels a dangerous dichotomy between men and women. A vicious cycle begins to form. In addition to being better equipped with skills and characteristics necessary to succeed, men are starting off their careers with more influential, higher paid positions because they have the courage and confidence to be active and demanding, while women tend to be more passive.
Interestingly, throughout their education, men and women reach the same level of success. This emphasizes that the inequalities between them is not due to a difference in ability or achievement. Success in post secondary studies has practically equalized across the academic disciplines. With regards to business specifically, the number of men and women entering business is also equivalent. Shortly after entrance into the workforce, however, there is a sharp decline. The World Economic Forum noted that after just five years, the number of women in business drops from 50% to 25%. In another ten years, that number is further reduced to approximately 10%.
This means that only a small fraction of women entering business are even eligible for the high-ranking positions that require significant work experience. A potential reason for this high dropout rate includes the challenges of balancing personal and professional life. Despite a significant transformation of traditional women’s roles, current societal expectations of motherhood and familial obligations do not fully support the pursuit of a high ranking or demanding career. As a result, women are often hesitant to pursue demanding careers.
Implementing gender quotas is a potential, though controversial, solution. It has been adopted by the European Central Bank (ECB) and Germany. In August 2013, the ECB proposed a non-binding goal to have 28% of senior management and 35% of middle management positions occupied by women by 2019. Currently, women occupy 14 percent and 17 percent of positions at the senior and middle levels of management respectively. The German coalition government agreed on a gender quota in November 2013. The plan proposed that companies listed on the DAX index, the German stock index, would be required to fill 30 percent of supervisory board seats with women employees. A gender quota represents a crucial cultural shift in the corporate sector and increases women’s opportunities to occupy high-level professional positions.
There is no doubt that it is not always easy to reconcile a professional career and motherhood. In addition to facing the difficult task of balancing a professional and personal life, pregnancy discrimination in the workplace is not unheard of. Women have been treated unfairly for asking for small accommodations due to their pregnancies. Fortunately, this is being addressed. In May of 2013, both the U.S Senate and the House of Representatives saw the introduction of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA). Since its introduction, the act has been passed in New Jersey, New York City, Philadelphia, and most recently in West Virginia’s House of Delegates on February 4th, 2014. On the Canadian side, a court decision in February 2013 ruled that workplaces must accommodate reasonable childcare-related requests from their employees. Since then there has been an increase in workplaces providing child-care service and support. Such progressive legislations are small but important victories that ensure that a successful career is not synonymous with personal sacrifice.
In order to break down the barriers discouraging women from striving for success, society must alter its mental outlook on women. All expectations, biases, and preformed judgements about women’s roles, abilities and potential must be transformed and women must be encouraged to aim high and think big for everyone’s benefit.

References
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