Mythbuster 8: What’s a Woman’s Job?

Mythbuster 8: What’s a Woman’s Job?

Expectations are imposed on all of us even from childhood. Girls are given Barbie’s, tiny buggies and play kitchen sets whilst boys are given fire engines, action figures and 200 piece Lego sets. If girls grow a liking for sports they’re labelled little tomboys, some parents may even think ‘I can’t let my son play with dolls he’ll grow up to be Gok Wan’. Sure enough these boys may grow thinking raising children is woman’s work and girls may think becoming fire-fighters and engineers are male careers. These gender stereotypes follow on into adulthood, making it hard to imagine women on building sites cementing bricks and whistling at men, a female taxi driver in a flat cap ranting about immigration or a woman fixing a leaky pipe in baggy trousers, fixing one crack and exposing another one. Unfortunately, this creates barriers to women’s career choices and advancement to decision-making positions.

Managers. C.E.O.’s and Board members

Gender stereotypes are cultural and social attitudes towards what is traditionally considered ‘male’ or ‘female’ roles or traits. Evidence suggests that women in organisations are held back by stereotypical images and expectations, such as that of the ‘businessman’.

‘Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.’ ― Charlotte Whitton

A photo of Hilary Devey
Hilary Devey

Arnie Cann and William D. Siegfried’s studies on gender stereotypes showed that people thought of a female leader as ‘someone who treats subordinates as equals, listens to their ideas, and is willing to put these into operation’; and males as someone who would be ‘focused on goals, meeting deadlines, and maintaining standards’. In reality there are females who lead an office like Gordon Ramsey on a bad day and men who have a more democratic less aggressive leadership style. Most people will have a mixture of both. Gender stereotypes and the fact that men have held the role of the leader for a long time are the main reasons why the sexes are seen as having different personal traits, levels of status and roles to fulfil.

A study by Darden professor Erica James, found that stock in a company drops after the announcement of a female CEO, but not a male CEO. Presumably some stock brokers believe women will be too busy counting calories and crying uncontrollably to run a business effectively. Well they’d be surprised to know that research carried out by Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with more women corporate officers, on average, financially outperformed those with fewer. Further research found that on average, companies with more women board directors significantly outperform those with fewer women including Fortune 500 companies.

Science, Engineering, Technology (SET)

A cartoon showing the divide in maths
How It Works

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked debate and outrage when he suggested that a reason for the limited number of women in top positions in the SET industries could be that females innately have less aptitude and ability in maths and science. Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology promptly walked out of the conference. Hopkins later said: ‘for him to say that “aptitude” is the second most important reason that women don’t get to the top when he leads an institution that is 50 percent women students – that’s profoundly disturbing to me.’ And also wrong. According to results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in Sweden, Norway and Iceland girls scored as high or higher than boys in subjects including maths. The battle of the sexes got even more interesting last year when research by world-renowned authority on IQ tests James Flynn, confirmed what many women knew all along; women’s IQ scores have risen above men’s and are rising at a faster rate, proving that with equal education, opportunities and encouragement women are able to be all that they can be.

Gender stereotypes affect not only how others evaluate women’s math and science skill but also how women see themselves. Over 70% of Britain’s female graduates of SET subjects do not work in these fields. Meg Munn MP says: ‘It was clear that from an early age girls and boys learn what are considered appropriate careers for their gender.’

Armed forced

A photo of a female Israeli soldier
A female Israeli soldier of the IDF Search and Rescue Unit

The decision by the Pentagon to lift the ban on women serving in close combat roles has raised questions about when the UK will also follow suit. In 2010, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) found key concerns surrounding ‘men’s desire to protect women’ and ‘women’s relatively lower physical strength and stamina’, based on a small study which also found that during incidents where women have had to shoot at the enemy during fire fights: ‘The majority of interviewees felt there was no impact due to the presence of a woman on getting the task done.’ MoD research from 2002 also found that women ‘required more provocation and were more likely to fear consequences of aggressive behaviour.’ Yet, this is contrary to what soldiers in the field are reporting; one was quoting saying:

‘We were on top cover, she on the right, me on the left. We both turned and started firing at the same moment. It didn’t matter she was a medical sergeant just that she was getting rounds off. The kit was not an issue, she carried her own and was happy to carry her own weight.’

There will always be socially and culturally constructed characteristics attached to gender. Power, autonomy and rationality are associated with masculinity and weakness, dependence and emotionality with femininity. Qualities of good warriors are also attached to manhood such as bravery and the notion that males fight wars to protect women and children have also been important for recruitment and institutional morale. Politicians have been known to use rhetoric such as ‘our men’; entrenching the belief that war is male territory. Joshua Goldstein in ‘War and Gender’ finds no biological reason why men are mostly fighters and attributes it to cultural socialisation, meaning men’s dominance is socially rather than biologically defined.

The question is can women be business people, engineers and combat soldiers? In the famous words of Bob the Builder/ Barack Obama ‘Yes we can!’ But gender role stereotypes continue to dictate women and men’s perceived places in society. It’s also shaped the unequal sharing between men and women of working hours, income and family responsibilities. The fact that women carry children and have to take maternity leave to take care of new-borns has resulted in women being the primary caretakers of children. There’s no reason why women cannot be career driven or why men can’t be househusbands. Fortunately, stereotypes and norms change with time; 60 years ago no-one would have imagined the President of America could be black; or that Europe’s largest economy would be run by Angela Merkel. In fact a report by the London School of Economics predicted a doubling in young female entrepreneurs over the next decade. In time, stereotypes about how women lead, their aptitude in science, engineering and technology and their ability to handle dangerous situations will also change.


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