Are you ready to lean in?

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Written by Armin Hopp on 27 March 2015

Earlier this month was the 116th International Women's Day, which celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women in the past, present and future. This year, it sparked a lot of questions and opinions around the web. It’s 2015, but how far have we come? And what can we do to support gender equality, both in the workplace and at home?

A recent study stunned us all when it found that there are fewer women chairing FTSE 100 companies than there are men named John holding these positions. Here in Germany, meanwhile, the government has just passed a new law stating that by 2016, women need to make up at least 30 per cent of the board in multinational companies. While applauded by many, this new law also faced some criticism, such as the fact that it is gender-biased and, in an ideal world, should not be necessary at all. On top of that, it may be risky to just fill positions with people based on their gender instead of their skills and experience.

Back to basics

Let’s take a step back and look at higher education. According to the University of Oxford, among all the factors contributing to graduates’ careers, gender still has the highest impact, ahead of social background, ethnicity or degree subject. For example, male graduates were found to be more confident about their career prospects and more proactive when approaching recruiters. Upon leaving university, they are 9 per cent more likely to find a graduate-level job within six months (and earn a higher salary!) than their female counterparts. So without realising it, women may be one step behind on the career ladder before even entering the world of work.

We could even take this right back to our early school days, where girls are frequently discouraged from taking “difficult” subjects like maths or physics. Boys on the other hand, are expected to excel at science and less encouraged to study foreign languages, where girls tend to shine. This, in turn, can be traced back of our parents’ and teachers’ perception of gender-based skills differences.

So the obstacles might already be in place long before we reach university or work. But let’s say a woman does get a great job right (as many do!) upon graduating and receives the same pay as her male peers. There’s another potential barrier waiting for her out there and that is other people’s perception of male and female success in the workplace. Two professors demonstrate this in the Heidi & Howard experiment, where two groups of people read the same case study describing an individual’s successful career path. Only in one version the person is Heidi, a woman (actually the case study is based on the true story of a woman’s career path) and in the other, it’s a man – Howard. When the groups were asked to describe the person they read about, the Howard group found him likeable, while the Heidi group said she was selfish and not somebody they would like to work with. This is not very encouraging news, but something we must take into account if we want things to change.

The communications gap

Many supporters of gender equality like to highlight typical ‘female’ strengths, e.g. the fact that they are better listeners, negotiators or more compassionate. There is also a common belief that women outperform men in foreign language and communication skills. As the Founder of a language training company, I often hear this from our customers who are aiming to train their workforce in a new language. They are worried that their male employees will be at a disadvantage in language training. But actually, our internal data of 72.000+ learners from around the world showed there was absolutely no difference in their performance. The only gender-related difference was that women were slightly more likely to attend live virtual classroom sessions than men. What affected their performance more was the amount of coaching and live training they received, how often they studied and how much their HR and L&D Managers backed their training.

I’d like to make a bold statement here and say that intellectual skills are gender-blind, and that it is society’s stereotypes and expectations that often push people down certain career paths. A woman can become a brilliant scientist, just like a man can become a great communicator. If we only ever look at the situation through the lens of gender, we’re setting ourselves up for a fall. To challenge our perceptions, we need to change the way we talk to our friends, colleagues and our own children. So instead of accepting the status quo, let’s keep pushing forward. 

Armin Hopp is the Founder and President of Speexx

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