Gender in the future of work? – There are three important requirements

posted on August 9th 2017 in Future of work & Gender & Talent & work values with 0 Comments

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Up until the late 19th century, the withdrawal of blood was claimed to be the most common medical practice to cure or prevent illness and disease. The idea behind the practice was that an excess of blood in the human body was the cause of hundreds of diseases from acne to tuberculosis. It was oftentimes clear to doctors and patients that bloodletting actually was harmful, if not even deadly. But against all evidence, the medical establishment remained true to bloodletting for almost two thousand years. Why?

Thomas Kuhn, an American Philosopher and Scientist, gave a clue as to the persistance of this bias human thinking: we struggle with ignorance. We don’t give up on an established theory because it proves to be wrong. We only give up on it when we have a better theory to replace it.


In gender equality, there are no guarantees

What does bloodletting have to do with the gender issue, you may ask.

Let me explain.

We stick to our well-established theories of the advancement of women, gender equality and so on while all the while evidence points to how little impact our efforts have and how little change they cause compared to the costs and resources we are investing.

Did we really expect that just by increasing the sheer quantity of women in certain positions, we could guarantee some sort of “gender equality”? Or by setting up extra “girls classes” in STEM* we could make young women choose careers in mathematics or science?

Let me debunk some myths of the gender topic before exploring some solution approaches for the future of work.


The gender bipolarity trap

Whether we want to admit it or not we have a deep rooted belief in the bipolar characteristics of men and women. By nature they are different and those differences are embodied in their biological sex.

By trying to bridge this gap to reach gender equality, we actually just reproduce the assumed differences while strengthening the inequalities.

The basis of our male/female bipolarity idea is the fact that men set the norms and woman somehow deviate from that norm. This began in the 1960’s when women started to also wear trousers and can be traced right up to today as women push to also be in technical jobs and executive positions. When we want to support women, we try to get them where men already are. Not much change in mindset over the past 60 years.

What we don’t seem to get in all our efforts of equal treatment of men and women is that if the starting position is not equal, we will just reproduce more inequality by trying to implement equality.


Societal expectations and “doing gender”

False ideas can easily be mistaken for truth. Especially if society tells us these ideas are true.

The gender issue we are dealing with today is based on false ideas. Those false ideas root in a process called “doing gender”. This means that the biological sex of women and men is attributed with cultural ideals, stereotypes, icons and role models that have very little to do with their actual biological sex. “Doing gender” helps us to easily navigate through challenging processes like finding our identity and defining and positioning ourselves. As this process requires a lot of work and resources, we tend to do it the easy way by reproducing old models.

Let me give you just one example.

Growing up, girls essentially have to choose between the role of the loving and caring mother or the childless and success driven career woman. The first option is supported and welcomed by society, as it supports the idea of the “true nature” of women, whereas the second one is seen as a derivation from it.

The truth is there are thousands of options regarding how you can conduct your life (not just two) and all of them are equally good. These truths are exposed when you focus on what you want to do with your life and not what society expects you to do with your life. But this is a very hard thing to do when you’re 11 or 15 or even 19 years old.

So it is not that girls are not interested in technology or having a decent career, but that they experience a strong conflict between their self-perception and the public image of their gender, the constructed reality they grow up with. “Stigma management” (proving to society that you are still a “normal” woman despite having a decent career or being interested in physics) is exhausting, especially when it has to be done from a very young age.

This is just one example of the complexity we face with this multi-cause problem.


Three important requirements for gender in the future of work

When I tell people that my department at the University of Zurich got funding from the Swiss Federal Office of Gender Equality, who supports our innovative gender approach, I always get asked: what can we do in the corporate world about gender equality?

In my opinion, there are no differences between the academic and the corporate world, as the academic world is a “man’s world” as well, facing exactly the same problems.

For me, gender in the future of work requires three important things happen:


Stop bloodletting

First – we have to admit that we do bloodletting to cure the disease. We have to let go of practices based on old gender theories and understandings even if we are not yet sure how to do it better. Stop with girl coding camps and yes, stop with the woman quota. These are only short-term gains.


Understand the real problem(s)

Second – we make the mistake of leaping straight to solutions without first understanding the real problem (read more about this special topic in my last blog). We are trying to squeeze women into a man’s world. We are trying to make executive positions and technical jobs interesting for girls, but we don’t ask ourselves what is the real reason for their lack of interest – and if it is a “lack of interest” at all. We have to understand that this is a multi-cause problem rooted in a societal system, not answerable with a straight-line approach.


Adapt to the future of work

Third – in the future of work, the hegemonic “man’s world” will slowly but surely disappear. In the course of these radical changes, new structures will occur, new competences will be needed, new wants and needs will be claimed when it comes to work, and the meaning of “having a job” will change.

We are facing an enormous opportunity to design a world of work, where women are not “fostered” to keep pace with the male norm. But they can live on their own terms.


Defining future approaches to gender equality

What made our gender approach at the University of Zurich worth supporting?

We completely stopped designing our services to be gender specific.

While setting our new strategic goals, I worked through all the scientific youth studies I could find to answer questions such as what is important to young people, what do they care about, what do they expect from a job besides an income, what dreams and fears do they have related to their future, and so on.

Surprisingly, there was very little difference in the answers given by girls vs. boys and young women vs. young men.

Let’s take this as a starting point to redefine our understanding of gender equality in the future of work.


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* STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathemathics