The fifth 2030 sustainability goal defined by the United Nations is to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.’ Although it is encouraging that the plight of women is being recognised by such an institution, a recent report from the World Economic Forum shows that reaching this target is highly unlikely. The impact of Covid-19 has increased the global gender gap, and it’s now predicted that it will take 135.6 years to close rather than the 99.5 years estimated before the pandemic.
Combatting gender inequality is not a linear march of progress – it is messy and complex and involves societies and institutions facing uncomfortable truths.
Here’s one of those truths: women continue to be belittled in public and professional spaces. Speaking as a woman, and based on the countless conversations I’ve had, stories I’ve read and listened to, I can safely say that many of us share the frustration of being patronised because of assumptions made about our capabilities and personalities in general. Assumptions that men do not have to defend themselves against because their competency is often taken as a given.
Unlike the gender pay gap, this phenomenon is difficult to measure. I am grateful, therefore, for the feminist thinkers who have worked to put it into words.
Mary Ann Sieghart calls it ‘the authority gap,’ and explores it meticulously in her book with the same title. Drawing on a wealth of research, Seighart shows how women and girls are treated as less than during school, in digital interactions (manifesting as online abuse), in their representation in media, and in the workplace. This treatment is based on ‘sneaky little stereotypes that we all seem to nurture in the darkest recesses of our brains,’ results of unconscious bias.
Entrenched social conventions communicate that women should be ‘warm, gentle, likeable and unthreatening.’Men, on the other hand, are more commonly associated with qualities linked to leadership: confidence, independence and assertiveness. If women display the latter qualities – referred to by social psychologists as agentic – we are likely to be treated with aversion in all manner of public spaces. For those women who are further marginalised due to their identities, negotiating authority is even more difficult.
This piece from the Harvard Business Review sheds light on how the ‘pervasive stereotype’ labelling Black women as ‘more hostile, aggressive, overbearing, illogical, ill-tempered and bitter’ than their white counterparts negatively affects their experience in the workplace. Research conducted by the authors asked participants to analyse videos of employees and supervisors – the employee was either Black or white, male or female, angry or neutral. The study found that the anger of Black female employees was more likely to be attributed to personality rather than an inciting external situation. In other words, the Black women in these videos were more likely to be labelled as having an angry disposition, and this prompted a lower assessment of their leadership capabilities.
This returns us to a point emphasised by Seighart: when it comes to public life women ‘get one chance’ to prove ourselves. Likeability is more important for us than it is for men, and if we display agentic qualities that are deemed as threatening, our personalities are often demonised.
Women who are refugees face a host of other challenges to their position in public life. Tashi Tahir, Parliamentary Officer at We Belong, a migrant youth-led organisation campaigning for the rights of young migrants, fled Pakistan for the UK when she was seven because of religious persecution. Discussing her dehumanising battle with the immigration system, which included being detained for a month when she was only 10, Tahir highlights in a BBC interview how people in her position face an uphill battle to contribute to society because gaining citizenship is so difficult.
One of the many ways that this manifests is in university applications. Those with refugee status classify as international students, meaning they have to pay much higher fees. They also aren’t eligible for student finance, therefore their chances of attending university are significantly limited compared to those with citizenship. In addition to biases faced because of their identities, immigration policy is denying these women the right to participate in higher education, and their ability to contribute to public life is devalued.
What can be done?
An affective way to work towards gender equality is to continue to investigate the barriers to achieving it. The world will continue to bring challenges, and although those challenges can feel overwhelming, a force that can remain consistent is attention. The men reading this piece should not see it as an attack but an invitation. Although much of the bias playing into gendered dynamics in public life are unconscious, consciousness can be harnessed by investigating your own behaviour and choices.
Seighart highlights that men are four times more likely to read a book written by a man than a woman. This could be a good place to start. If you can’t remember the last time you read a book written by a woman, read one. Allow our intellectual authority in your awareness.
The responsibility for investigation lies with women too, for unconscious biases are held by all of us. Jessica Nordell recently spoke about coming to terms with her own bias whilst writing her book: ‘Seeing what’s happening in your own mind is the first step to having agency…The process of really looking deeply, analyzing [and] questioning…changed my life.’
In the organisations and institutions that shape public life, progressive and caring leadership is crucial to change. Creating an environment where everyone truly feels safe, valued and represented is a stepping stone, albeit small, to dismantling the larger systems of oppression that affect women’s lives.