International Women’s Day 2021: Celebrating women of the past and achieving gender equality for the future
“How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes” – Maya Angelou’s words undoubtedly still ring true today. Having recently celebrated 2021’s International Women’s Day, we remain ambivalent about progress in gender equality. We find hope in historical milestones that have allowed women to vote, go into space, and lead a country, but remain highly aware that the scales are far from balanced.
Women account for 50% of the population, but they only occupy 0.5% of recorded history. If we delve into the history books, we learn the consequences of not choosing to challenge bias and celebrate women’s achievements. History shows us what we need to do, and science tells us how to do it.
The consequences of failing to challenge and celebrate
Progress is not a given. While gender equality has improved significantly in some countries, the situation has deteriorated elsewhere. To highlight the urgency of the situation, we can turn to a study published by the UN in 2020 called the Gender Social Norms Index which explored gender bias across 75 countries.
It revealed that nearly 90% of men and women hold some bias against women. About 50% believe men make better leaders, and 40% feel that men make better business executives.
This is a crushing disappointment that denies women of their full potential. Unfortunately, the findings aren’t surprising or unfamiliar. Throughout history, the ground-breaking contributions of many women have gone unnoticed.
A well-known illustration is Rosalind Franklin who changed biology with a single photograph that revealed the structure of DNA. While she has received numerous posthumous awards, at the time of her discovery, James Watson and Francis Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize after using Franklin’s findings without her knowledge or permission.
Advancing the field of technology, Hedy Lamarr invented frequency hopping in 1942, which is the basis for all modern communication: WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth. However, she was also a Hollywood movie star and regarded as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Defined primarily in terms of her looks, Lamarr’s pioneering discovery largely remained shrouded in obscurity.
Christine de Pizan was the first professional female writer in the western world to be paid for her work. She authored The Book of the City of Ladies in 1405, which argues that stereotypes will endure unless women can join the conversation. Once her legacy dwindled in the 19th century, de Pizan became regarded as the forgotten renaissance feminist.
Society’s disregard for their exceptional achievements paints an alarming picture of gender inequality. It is irrefutable that a huge disservice is done to these three woman and millions more when we do not choose to challenge, and we overlook their contributions.
The potential of choosing to challenge and celebrate
However, hope is not lost. While the decision to confront inequality should not require justification, there are numerous examples of individuals and organisations whose actions can inspire us all to follow in their footsteps and restore the equilibrium.
Let’s take Cecilia Payne who in 1925 explained the stars by discovering that the universe is made from helium and hydrogen. After battling deeply entrenched misogynistic views about the place of women in academic positions, Cecilia became Harvard’s first female Head of Department and paved the way for future female astronomers.
From a healthcare perspective, we have Dame Cicely Saunders, who founded the hospice movement in 1967 after going against professional opinion and with limited funding. In combining rigorous clinical methodology with compassion for the dying, palliative care was born. In recognition of her work, in 1981 Saunders received the Templeton Prize – the world’s highest-value annual prize awarded to an individual.
And then there’s Daphne Oram, the first electronic music composer in Britain who laid the foundations for renowned artists like Fatboy Slim, Massive Attack and Calvin Harris. She was pushed out by the BBC, an institution dominated by men at the time, but this did not stop her contributions to music. In her honour, the prestigious PRS Foundation and New BBC Radiophonic Workshop launched the Oram Awards in 2016 to celebrate the next generation of female artists.
These examples emphasize that action can be a catalyst for change. They show us a glimpse of a world where women’s accomplishments never go unacknowledged but form part of our collective memory.
The advice on how to challenge and celebrate
Making a choice to tackle gender bias is the first step, taking action is the second step. How exactly can organisations and their employees tackle inequalities and honour women’s accomplishments?
- Organisations: Educate
We can’t choose to challenge gender bias if we’re not aware of how it manifests. Organisations should provide employees with a concise, digestible summary to ensure everyone is alert of both their own and others’ actions. This should distinguish between two types of sexism: benevolent vs. hostile (Glick & Fiske, 2000).
Hostile sexism is openly misogynistic and based on a belief that gender equality presents an attack on masculinity. It is displayed through aggressive, dominant or rude behaviour and aims to preserve men’s dominance.
Benevolent sexism is far more subtle. It is therefore more likely to emerge in the workplace because the perpetrator can maintain inequality whilst avoiding detection. This behaviour may appear supportive and positive, but it is actually very undermining because it perpetuates the idea that women are weak, idolized by men and should not deviate from their gender roles.
Research attests to its highly damaging impact on wellbeing. One study found that benevolent sexism increased women’s cardiovascular threat response. So, what does it look like?
- Assuming women are best suited to administrative tasks. Otherwise known as mother-manager syndrome, this impedes their professional development.
- Assigning tough negotiations to men or giving unsolicited offers for help, e.g., “let me help you with this. I know this kind of thing can be hard for girls.” This reinforces the stereotypes that women can’t handle such situations.
- Attributing women’s performance to their characteristics rather than skills and abilities, e.g., “she’s really talented. But I wish she’d be less abrasive”.
- Commenting on a woman’s appearance, e.g., “don’t bother your pretty little head.” This greatly undermines their cognitive performance.
- Individuals: Shift the narrative:
The language we use reinforces our worldview, and a lot of gender bias emerges in the way we communicate on a daily basis. How can we transform sexist dialogue?
- Call out those who say a woman is too ‘emotional’ or ‘irrational’; these labels question their competence in the workplace.
- If you’re not comfortable being direct, then rephrase what they have said, such as “I rather admire her emotional availability, few people can be so expressive” or “I actually wish I was more intuitive”.
- If someone makes a sexist joke or comment, ask them to explain what they meant by the comment. This allows you to remain poised whilst also forcing them to confront the fact that their language was offensive. Even not laughing is a step in the right direction because it conveys that the current tone is not well-received.
- Turn the tables to point out that you’re being treated differently. For example, if someone asks you in jest “where is the coffee?”, you can respond “I’m not sure, but when you find it mine’s white with one sugar”. Sexist language is rife with what’s known as disparagement humour (Ford & Ferguson 2004), which functions to belittle a social group, but responses like this can make the perpetrator acutely aware of the impact of their language.
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