Leadership for Gender Equality
Every March over three decades, we celebrate the impact that women have in America during Women’s History Month. As we celebrate some of the progress made, we realize that the pace of change is far too slow. Recent studies show that women still earn only 78% of what men are paid for the same job, and that gap increases even further for women of color. Statistics indicate that the percent of executive positions held by women have increased from 13.5% to 14.6% from 2009 to 2013, and progress in the boardroom is equally stagnated.
When it comes to raising a family, we continue to struggle for respect for women who choose to stay home, and the U.S. trails much of the developed world on issues of childcare support and paid family leave legislation. Finally, women and girls are held to difficult expectations on physical appearance as society continues to define feminine beauty with impossible standards.
For every one of these issues, there are organizations, social media groups, mentoring programs, and advocacy efforts designed to change the world for women. As important as these efforts might be, perhaps closer examination is needed in one of the most important roles we have — that of how we raise and influence our children.
Indeed change takes time. But if we fail to create a greater sense of urgency around how the next generation views issues of gender equality, we cannot expect the will of organizations and advocacy programs to make it happen. After all, those efforts are led by human beings who hold values and biases that are well-formed by the time they are given the responsibility to lead. Those of us who have the opportunity to shape those values and biases should consider the following:
Talk to kids
In a world of constant connectivity, we are becoming increasingly disconnected. Having thoughtful conversations with kid about work, school, friendships, and health all provide opportunities to convey quality messages about how men and women can/should feel and interact. Discuss news reports that cover issues of gender bias, and ask kids what they experience with friends. Engaging on this topic will make them realize that they can be part of making things different.
Examine your gender biases
You have them. We all do. Realize how much biases have evolved since your parents’ generation (not long ago, women were required to quit work when they became pregnant!), and make a commitment to continue that journey for the future of the children you influence. Do you place an equal level of importance on the education and independence of your daughter as much as your son? Do you subconsciously feel that it’s less important for a girl to demonstrate success than a boy? Examine these, and realize how they impact what you say and how you behave.
Fill your children’s lives with great gender role models
The impact that role models have in our lives is tremendously important. They are examples of the professional, personal, and ethical behaviors that we strive to achieve. It is essential for children to have, in addition to their parents, adults who represent a standard for which to strive. Role models can be teachers, neighbors, church leaders, family relatives, or friends. Have conversations about what makes them great people, how they achieved their happiness and success, and encourage your children to build strong and healthy relationships with each of them.
Find opportunities to travel or live abroad
Nothing opens the eyes of children more than having a chance to interact with people from other parts of the world. Models of what men and women do vary in other countries, and experiencing those differences can lead to insights and conversations that can shift biases that we hold. In countries where education for girls is not as strongly endorsed as it is for boys, opportunities for women are far more limited. On the contrary, where gender equality is more prevalent, it is easy to see both social and cultural support systems that make that possible.
Include gender implications in milestone conversations
In addition to everyday conversations and activities that reflect your beliefs about gender issues and challenges, be sure to carve out opportunities to include the topic in “milestone moments” such as graduation, marriage, first jobs, and other life events. Young adults are constantly faced with choices and opportunities to formulate their beliefs about gender issues throughout their early years. If a daughter is heading off to college, provide reinforcement about the importance of the next few years as an investment in her future career. If a son is about the start a new job, remind him about how important it is to value the contributions of all of his colleagues, and to realize the particular challenges of young women colleagues at work.
Build self-esteem and confidence in both boys and girls
Encourage activities that require collaboration as well as those that are competitive for both boys and girls. This emphasizes the importance of both individual effort and teamwork, and teaches at a young age that the best result is often only achieved with the help of many different skills. Strive to find the special gifts of all children, and resist the temptation to “channel” them into areas of interest that suit preconceived biases. Most importantly, don’t play into the mentality that boys need to be tough, and girls need to be soft. The two traits are not mutually exclusive, and in reality, don’t we want to find them both in both men and women?
I’m often asked when I speak about gender issues in the workplace what I consider to be the most important factor in making things different. My answer has always been the same: “It’s about how we raise our kids”. The pace of change is excruciatingly stalled. It’s our fault. We’re raising kids who have the same biases that we are trying to change. We must take a good look at ourselves; at the experiences we bestow upon our children, the modeling we provide, and the evidence we demonstrate.
Anna was one of the six women featured in Get Ahead By Going Abroad: A Woman’s Guide to Fast-track Career Success. To read more about Anna’s perspective on leadership, check out her blog, Shades of Leadership.