SIEGEL: How women can help women

Despite more women entering society’s upper echelons, gender parity is elusive

While the presence of women in the top corporations in America and the world has shown slight improvement since I last addressed the issue about 6 months ago, alleviating gender discrimination in the workplace takes more than a change in the boardroom. At the 2016 Women at the Top conference, Christine Lagarde, France’s former minister for economic affairs, reminded us “more women are entering companies’ higher echelons — but gender parity remains elusive.” What is the cause of this deceleration after a clear gradual improvement? Our standard is slacking, as we are settling now that we have a few women in the top positions. We need to abolish the mindset that women are automatically good examples for other women by addressing gender discrimination in the context of human behavior and helping the women below us achieve success.

It seems the results are still not getting better. The gender gap in the workplace is less about policy change and more about ingrained psychological change. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, is committed to freeing women in the workforce from “gender discrimination, including discrimination based on sex stereotypes, pregnancy, and parenting; discrimination in the form of barriers to working in fields from which women have traditionally been excluded; and the systemic undervaluing of work traditionally performed by women.” While this organization most definitely protects women on the legislative level, how can we change the central problem involving human behavior? We only need these policies to protect women’s rights in the first place because of our ingrained stereotypes about women and their abilities. In a study about gender differences in leadership, the authors found that “societal gender roles may contaminate organizational roles and result in different expectations for female and male managers.” We have considered, independent of cultural dynamics, “stereotypical male behaviors as closer to ‘good leadership’ than stereotypical female behavior.” While policies do set a solid platform for dealing with stereotyping, it would be more constructive to redesign training programs and conduct educational seminars so people may become aware of their ingrained tendencies. This awareness will help to create an environment conducive to the task at hand rather than discrimination.

Coupling gradual cultural change with a stronger female effort to help other women will allow us to change the perception surrounding gender roles in the workforce over time. Richie Zweigenhaf, a psychology professor at Guilford College, proposes “the existence of a few trailblazers has allowed companies and political parties to become lazier in promoting women.” I do not think there are specific groups to blame for this laziness, but I think it is up to women now to change this perception over time. In order for us to prove strong female participation has positive effects and can lead to robust change, women need to take the reigns of the situation and encourage other women to fight for what they have achieved. Empowering other women is necessary, otherwise they will “be deterred from leadership aspirations by the lack of encouragement… they see for the public image of women currently in top jobs.”

Brenda Trenowden, chair of the 30 percent Club, underscores the importance of simple encouragement, rather than just policy change, in the effort to increase female participation across the world. Her solution encompasses the idea that there is not one right “model for getting to the top,” an idea which “needs to be visibly and candidly reflected in society.” The masses need to know they have a shot, and that starts with the women who have made it to the top. While the rungs of the corporate ladder are hard to hold tightly, when a woman has made it to the top, it is her duty to “find the courage and vulnerability to leave it down,” as other women need it in order to pursue their dream. We leave the ladder down by “being honest and open about how we’ve successfully made the climb, how we doubted ourselves along the way and how we’ve changed the rules.” We can learn from each other’s mistakes and mishaps, eventually redesigning a ladder with fewer rungs, which we can climb with ease.

Lucy Siegel is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at l.siegel@cavalierdaily.com.

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