Wednesday, 10 August 2016 09:33

Opinion piece: Gender stereotypes and breaking glass ceilings

Maybe Tom Elliott's right.

Maybe we women should listen to his wise advice and quit trying to crack the big time. Maybe he's on to something in his piece last week, "Too Smart To Be Stress Slaves", when he describes high-flying careers as drudge roles in disguise.

Maybe we should save ourselves a lot of grief when he advises us, from his experience — so listen up, girls — that roles at the top are not what they're cracked up to be and chasing a career heading a large corporation or in politics will only end in tears.

Look at Hillary Clinton. She could have happily retired as a former first lady and lead a quiet life baking those cookies, but she went and got it into her head that she could be America's next president. Now every young girl thinks it's possible.

Thank goodness Tom has pointed out such roles are not at all compatible with "balanced, happy and fulfilling lives" so that means, of course, any woman choosing to drink from this so-called "poisoned chalice" is automatically choosing to be a neglectful mother, wife, friend or daughter.

Someone better save those aspirational young girls from a lonely life of misery right now.

Thanks for the warning, Tom.

No doubt he thinks these types of roles are best left for the men because, well, someone has to take the fall. It all makes sense now; that the gender pay gap of nearly 20 per cent is a kind of compensation for men making that sacrifice at the top.

The problem with this argument is that it totally misses the point. It also ignores the obvious problem that if these male-dominated leadership roles are as difficult or toxic as Tom insists, then perhaps something needs to change.

Maybe a greater gender balance would lead to a shift in expectations around these roles so that neither men nor women need to forgo a "fulfilling personal life" in exchange for a top job.

There are many expectations that come with gender and it cuts both ways.

Tom's cautionary tale, even if intended to be tongue-in-cheek, could have just as easily been directed to men but it wasn't because it didn't need to be.

But that's unfair too because, on the flip side, it also makes the assumption that men can't or don't want to be caregivers or that they are totally at ease with not taking their kids to school or missing their birthdays — if you accept that narrative as an absolute truth.

That's all the more reason to challenge this argument of "know thy place" because these gender stereotypes and expectations are at the core of inequality. It's also a potentially dangerous argument when you take into account the ample evidence linking gender inequality with domestic violence.

This discussion should never be about men versus women because gender stereotypes affect us all.

Such stereotypes are pervasive, and need to be challenged and taken to task in much the same way we should call out racism when we see it.

The truth is, despite all the advances made over the years, gender inequality has not vanished. It has not even gone underground.

When you have a group of year 12 boys at a Melbourne school cruelly rating their dates on the basis of their appearance or some veteran footy commentators wanting to drown a female colleague or calls to "Ditch the Witch" directed at our first female prime minister, it's fair to say the message is still not getting through.

But to accept it or laugh it off as "boys will be boys" or harmless fun is wrong. Just ask the families, friends and colleagues of those who have lost loved ones at the hands of violent partners.

Suggesting to women they take a step back from the boardroom rat race dilutes and unravels any progress that has been made, and also implicitly suggests women are just somehow not up to running the show. It's also insulting to the women who've won a hard-fought place at the corporate table by inferring they have sold out or at least compromised a happy life to do so.

As outgoing President Barack Obama said recently, women should never downplay how far they have come but the most important change is challenging the stereotypes of how men and women should behave.

It's about something profoundly basic: how we treat each other as human beings. There's nothing particularly complicated about giving each other a fair and equal go. If we allow ourselves to be defined by gender alone then we are effectively endorsing the myth that somehow inequality is not only inevitable but acceptable.

Copyright Herald Sun : published 10 August 2016

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