Education and Skills

These myths are holding women back in the workplace

It’s gender bias, rather than ability, that turns women off STEM

It’s gender bias, rather than ability, that turns women off STEM Image: REUTERS/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Carolyn Tastad
Chief Executive Officer Health Care, Procter & Gamble
Kim K. Azzarelli
Founder, Seneca Women
Deanna Bass
Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion, Procter & Gamble
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

That unfamiliar sound you’ve been hearing in recent months? It’s the voice of women. Women speaking up about sexual harassment, and decrying the wage gap in industries from entertainment to technology.

Their voices are finally being taken seriously. This welcome development is long overdue. But the next step - women’s full participation - will be challenging. Women must be represented in equal numbers to men at the highest levels of our business and government institutions, where real change can be made.

Women make up half the population and earn more advanced degrees than men in 100 countries. So why are they a distinct minority in the uppermost echelons?

There have been many attempts to answer this question. Here’s another one: it’s the way the world sees women. Society operates with a set of assumptions about women that hold them back. We have been working to expose these assumptions, which we call myths, with women’s empowerment platform Seneca Women.

We’ve all heard the clichés that feed the myths. Women don’t raise their hands, women don’t speak up, women don’t go for the big jobs. Women aren’t assertive enough, women don’t have what it takes to lead. The workplace is fine, the thinking goes, but it’s women who need fixing.

At times, even the most well-intentioned among us buy into these myths and perpetuate the biases we are working to eliminate. By focusing on women’s supposed shortcomings, the myths tell women they must change in order to succeed.

Here are some of the most pervasive messages:

Myth: Women need fixing.

Women avoid conflict, says the myth. They don’t take risks, they lack confidence, they’re too emotional. This myth falls apart when you change perspective and realize that it’s the system, not the woman, that needs repair.

Women have the necessary leadership skills. But the way they lead may look different to how men lead. We need to embrace these differences in behaviour, not judge them.

Myth: There are not enough qualified women to fill CEO jobs.

It’s hard to believe companies can’t find enough women for their top jobs when women make up 46 percent of the workforce. It’s not about the pipeline. We simply need to develop our female and male employees equally, grooming both for advancement.

Myth: STEM is a man’s thing.

Technology is the future. But women lack the skills and aggression to succeed in the field, says the myth.

In fact, it’s gender bias, rather than ability, that turns women off STEM. You don’t have to go far to find women who are a living rebuke to the women-can’t-tech myth.

Myth: Household chores are women’s work.

No matter their age or income, women still have primary responsibility for housework and child care. That cuts into the time they could be spending on their careers. The reality is, of course, that cooking and cleaning are gender-neutral activities. And when both parents are engaged in rearing their children, they do better in school.

Myth: Sexual harassment is a women’s issue.

Inappropriate, discomfiting behavior can derail careers and drive women away from jobs they love. The widespread outcry against predatory men is a necessary corrective. We need to listen to the brave women who speak out, and recognize the men who stand with them.

If we are to create a gender-equal world - a better world for both men and women - we need to dispel these myths. We must change the way we think and talk about women. Each of us has the power to make a difference to our own organization and to the world around us. In fact, we have an obligation to do so.

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Related topics:
Education and SkillsEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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