Are gender roles learned or innate?

by Professor Binna Kandola, Senior Partner and Co-Founder, Pearn Kandola

Much has been said these past few years about gender parity in the workplace, and the need to overthrow the archaic stereotypes that are associated with men and women. In the not-too-distant past, we were attuned on a societal level to the idea that a woman’s role was in the home, caring for the family, while men were the breadwinners. Men were meant to provide, and women were meant to be supported.

Many people would like to think that we are now so modern in our thinking, so aware and enlightened, that stereotyping such as this couldn’t possibly be an issue in our society. After all, there are more women in work than ever before. It wasn’t so long ago that we had a female prime minister, who, among other initiatives, announced measures to ensure that pregnant women will enjoy greater protection against unfair dismissal from employers.

However, the evidence of our inherent biases can be seen at all levels of the workplace.

Women in the workplace

Consider the gender pay gap, for example. It’s believed that one of the key contributors to the gender pay gap is the increased responsibility that women shoulder for childcare, with two-thirds of women returning to work part-time after having a child and earning 30% less than full-time working women.

Another factor is that too few women achieve the highest-ranking positions, which are, in most cases, the highest-paying. Indeed, a study released in 2018 claimed that there were more FTSE 100 companies led by men called David or Steve than those led by women or people from minority ethnic backgrounds.

This particular problem stems directly from the unconscious belief that women are less qualified for leadership than men. On an impulsive level, members of both sexes more readily associate men with leadership qualities, expecting men to be assertive and rational, and women to be caring and sensitive. So, we should not lull ourselves into the belief that it is only men who have gender bias.

What changes can we make?

How can we ensure that when our children grow up and enter the workplace, they don’t carry these biases with them? Some would argue that fiction has a role to play, and there has certainly been a conscious effort in recent years for children’s films, television programmes and books to portray more women in leading roles.

Many people will, for example, be optimistic that the first-ever female Doctor Who or the creation of a Little Miss Inventor character will encourage more young girls to consider pursuing STEM subjects. Perhaps they will. After all, we are a story-telling species. We learn lessons that stay with us throughout our entire lives from fictional characters. My opinion, however, is that real-life influences have more of an impact.

The most important change that we can make is to stop seeing the workplace as a man’s domain, and to stop associating certain roles with specific genders. We must create workplaces where a female board member or CEO is not a novelty, but is a role model that young women can aspire to live up to.

Setting an example

A perfect example of this mentality is when The West Midlands’ Fire Service tweeted that it had received the following message; “My 4yr old came home saying she wished she was a boy so she could be a fireman. When I said girls can be firefighters too, she said ‘I’ve seen in books they are all boys – I don’t want to be the only girl’.”

Female members of The West Midlands’ Fire Service quickly took to Twitter to share messages of support and show the child that her goal was indeed attainable. It didn’t stop there though, with female firefighters from around the world joining in the discussion to offer words of encouragement.

This is the example that we need to set for younger generations. It’s all very well presenting children with female role models in a fictional context, but it’s stories such as this, that prove to girls that they can achieve real success, which are going to make a tangible difference.

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