The world has different expectations for men and women

Date: 09 Mar 2016

Bumblebee Design

Muna Jawhary, women’s rights advocate and author of ‘Women and False Choice: The Truth about Sexism’, talks about the myths that hold women back from reaching their full potential in the workplace.

Fighting sexism in the workplace: what are the myths about men and women?

Many believe men and women are fundamentally different human beings. For example, women are often viewed as communal carers while men are considered to be natural-born leaders and decision-makers. Another common belief is that masculinity and femininity are mutually exclusive, so men have no feminine attributes and vice versa. But perhaps the most dangerous myth many still buy into is that masculinity is superior to femininity.


Do our genes dictate our corporate destiny?

There are two things that shape us as human beings: neuroplasticity, which means that our brain is physically shaped by events in our life and our physical and cultural environment; and epigenetics, which literally means control above the genes. The latter says that our environment modifies and regulates gene activity, which contradicts the theory that genes dictate our destiny. Given that the world has different expectations for boys and girls, and men and women, both epigenetics and neuroplasticity mean that females will by necessity exhibit a different behaviour from males to match the cultural expectations.


Why are there more men in the upper echelons of the corporate world?

Historically, men’s upper body strength was an asset in hunting and later in agriculture so women stayed home and took care of the children. Although life has changed beyond recognition from those times, we still don’t question the belief we have of men’s suitability for work outside the home. More importantly, we don’t question the belief that women are more suited for care than men. In the corporate world, as well as in other areas of our life, masculinity is held as a gold standard and femininity is debased to a lower status. The belief that the masculine is superior and the feminine is inferior is so profound that in our societies both women and men are clamouring to become more masculine and to shun the feminine.


What steps can we take to eradicate sexism in the workplace?

Because of the myths we hold about women and men, the workplace is still designed in masculine terms, suitable for those who are ‘care free’. Because our societies invariably give the childcare to women, this means the workplace is biased against women. The workplace needs an urgent redesign and the single most important aspect of any new design should remove the care bias. Equally, we have to ditch the assumption that it is only women who should care. But there are two sides to sexism. Several studies have shown that flexible work is thought of as something for women with children and men worry about perceptions if they work in this way. There is a belief that working part-time and caring for children is not something ‘real men’ do. Helping fathers to adjust their workload and encourage them to care for their children is just as important as promoting women into leadership roles.


Why are men so reluctant to take paternity leave?

The stigma of taking a family leave is not necessarily attached to women but to anyone who cares, and this is what business leaders need to be diligent about. For example, when Norway, Sweden and Iceland introduced the ‘father quota’, which means part of the shared parental leave is reserved for fathers on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, only about a quarter of fathers in these countries take up their paternity leave. Business leaders have to make every effort to remove any doubt from men’s mind that taking parental leave will be perceived as having a lack of commitment.


How can business leaders reshape their thinking?

Businesses believe that time used for family is time taken away from work and so it reduces productivity and with it profitability but they need to realise that there is more to productivity than numbers of hours. When people feel that they have control over their lives, they become far more inspired and creative at work and their productivity rises significantly, which in return benefits the business and increases the retention rate.


To know more about Muna Jawhary and her new book Women and False Choice: How to Fight Sexism in the Workplace, visit her webpage