How Will You Help Forge a More Gender Equal World?
As we move past International Women’s Day 2021, on the heels of one of the most historic years in our lives, I am humbled by the individual and collective progress we have made, and filled with hope for what is to come.
This has been an incredibly challenging year, and we have experienced a level of discomfort, unpleasantness, and downright pain than we probably ever expected to experience in our lifetimes.
But, it has also given us the rare opportunity to pause and examine the life we have been living, and start thinking about the kind of life we want to live moving forward. We have learned and we have grown. We have learned that productivity can look a lot of different ways, and that has caused us to challenge what the working world should look like in the next normal.
We have learned that the American dream and its promises of freedoms and equality are not evenly distributed amongst all the people of this land, and that has caused us to challenge our own beliefs, and the societal structures that were built to quite intentionally keep that unequal distribution in place.
We have learned that sometimes our closest friends and even family members are not who we thought they were, and that has caused us to challenge who we choose to keep in our lives in order to preserve a shred of our peace and mental wellness. We have learned that we make the world we live in, and we have learned that the impact of individual choices can extend far beyond our initial intended circle of influence.
As we have seen, the simple individual choice to wear a mask and social distance, or not, can have significant consequences.
And that brings me to this year’s theme, which is #ChooseToChallenge. The global International Women’s Day organization sets a theme for every year, and for 2021, it was this: A challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change.
So let’s all choose to challenge. How will you help forge a gender equal world? Celebrate women’s achievements. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.
Now, I want everyone to take a breath and breathe in a firm understanding and deep trust that your individual choices, in your life, in your home, in your workplace, in your community, matter. Every choice matters. And I don’t want that to trigger more stress and make you feel like you have something else to worry about! That is not the intent.
The intent is for you to be able to lead with hope and optimism. The intent is for you to know that as big and impossible as some of the world’s problems seem, your individual choices do matter, and you do not have to join marches or protests to make a difference – although if that is the right path for you, more power to you. But those are not the only options you have to make a positive impact.
By bringing an "activism spirit" to your daily life and being educated and intentional about how your choices can create ripples of change, you can help forge a more equal world. I am very committed to the idea of actionability, and I want to leave you all with more than words. So I am going to go through each of the three pillars in the International Women’s Day theme and share with you some of my ideas for how you can affect change with your choices.
Celebrate women’s achievements.
A good way to start here would probably be to become aware of women’s achievements, historically. And to do that, we need to acknowledge that the history taught to us in school was whitewashed and malewashed.
There are so many brilliant and accomplished women, and black people, and black women who had significant impacts on the world, and who have been left out of mainstream history. And this affects us. If you think of my field, science – how many of us can name prominent, world-renowned male scientists, either today or from the past? Probably all of us, and several at that.
Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Francis Crick and James Watson, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin…these are practically household names. Now how many of us can name prominent, world-renowned female scientists? Maybe some of you can pull out the name Marie Curie, maybe even Rosalind Franklin, and that is probably where the list ends.
Is that because women are less accomplished as scientists? Well, historically, that is part of the explanation. Women were, and in many cases still are, actively kept out of academic and research institutions, so certainly there were far fewer opportunities for women to acquire advanced educations and do impactful research. But even in the instances where there were women who contributed to research and inventions that changed the world, the history books typically neglect to mention this.
For example, let’s take Francis Crick and James Watson, of the famous "Watson & Crick" DNA double helix. This “discovery” was only possible because of Rosalind Franklin’s pioneering X-ray diffraction studies, and although Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins shared a Nobel Prize in 1962 for their "discovery," Franklin was left out. After she finished her work on DNA, she led pioneering work on the molecular structure of viruses. After she died, her team member Aaron Klug continued her work, and he won a Nobel Prize in 1982, but again, she was never awarded one.
That is just one example. There are many, many more, across all time periods and all kinds of accomplishments. Fortunately, it is easier than ever to learn about important historical figures who have been left out of history books. Between Google, Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook groups, and even entertaining history shows, the information is out there. You just need to decide for yourself that it is worthy of your time to become acquainted with the real history of our nation and our world.
Another way to celebrate women’s achievements, that might feel a bit closer in, is to start with yourself and your own achievements, or those of a woman in your life. The important part here, and the hard part, is to celebrate your accomplishments in life that have brought you closer to living a life full of purpose and meaning WITHOUT simultaneously tallying up all the ways you feel like you still are not doing enough.
So celebrating your own achievements really means dropping all that insecurity and guilt around I’m not mom-enough manager-enough wife-enough friend-enough, and pushing back against the force that drives you to exhaust and overextend yourself, doing everything for everyone, day after day. Celebrating your achievements means ending your day relaxing with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, acknowledging the e-mails you didn’t read, the chores you didn’t do, and the friend you forgot to call, and still sitting back and saying, “I have done enough today and I deserve a rest.”
Raise awareness against bias.
First, let’s talk for a minute about bias. The key thing about biases is that they are usually unconscious, we all have them, and they do not automatically make you sexist or racist or homophobic. In fact, unconscious bias is a natural product of the way our brains work.
Our brain's primary job is to keep us safe, and it does that partly by very quickly – and unconsciously – categorizing all the information that is constantly streaming into your brain every second, without you even realizing it. The brain makes snap judgments of situations that are likely to be safe and situations that may be dangerous, based mostly on the experiences you have had in the past, and although this is an oversimplification, familiar situations trigger "I am safe" and unfamiliar situations trigger "I may not be safe."
The reason this gets complex in our modern world is that the brain does not distinguish between stress hormones from you narrowly avoiding a car crash (i.e. real physical danger) vs. stress hormones from receiving negative feedback at work (i.e. unpleasant and uncomfortable, but not real physical danger).
So hopefully you are starting to put together a picture of how this can manifest in unconscious biases. For example: if you have traveled via airplane two to three times per year for the past five years, and you have always had a male pilot, and then you suddenly have a female pilot, that might trigger some discomfort or even some stress.
Is that because you have this very accurate gut instinct that this particular pilot just is not as qualified as the ones you have had before and you may even be in danger? Probably not. It’s just an unfamiliar situation, which our brains do not like. And these kinds of mostly unconscious reactions can start to have very important and sometimes even deadly consequences in our everyday lives when you consider situations like how gender affects a pilot’s likelihood of being hired, or how race affects a driver’s likelihood of being killed during a routine traffic stop.
So, what can we do about this? Well, the first step is to build some awareness of your own unconscious biases, and that means acknowledging that you have them – and that having them does not make you a bad person. You also have to acknowledge that even though unconscious biases are a natural product of the way our brains work, it is still important to do some work here to make sure you are making decisions in your life, whether in your personal life or in your work life, based on objective considerations, and not highly subjective criteria like "gut instincts" or "cultural fit."
Now to be clear, building awareness of your own biases is the first step of many, but the other steps can’t happen without this first one. There are a variety of ways you can do this. There is the well-known Implicit Association Test, which you can easily find online, but my preferred strategy here is to use my gut instincts against themselves. Meaning, when you do get that tingle of discomfort, try to pause, examine it, and use the power of your rational brain, rather than your instinctual one, to decide what is likely causing that tingle. Then you can act from a place of awareness.
There is another place where education can help you, and that is in building awareness of how gender inequality plays out in healthcare or in employment. For example, heart disease is the number-one killer of women in the United States, and yet, survival rates are lower in women than in men – because heart disease is still seen as a man’s disease, so women are 50% more likely than a man to receive the wrong diagnosis, even when presenting classic symptoms of a heart attack. Do you know when this statistic does not hold true? When the admitting doctor is a woman.
I’ll give you another example, this time of terms of employment and wages. As of 2019, only 62% of American men believed that female workers are paid less than their male counterparts who do similar work. Which is striking when you consider how public this debate has become in recent years, with, for example, the US women’s soccer team or in the case of the popular Netflix show The Crown, where we learned that the actor playing Prince Philip was paid more than the actress playing the Queen. Those are just two examples of many.
So, educate yourself about the research and the data, so that when you are met with a poorly informed opinion, you have the data to rationally and objectively back up your stance. And even more importantly – make sure you are not the one coming to the table with the poorly informed opinion. If you have a particular perspective on an issue, and the only lived experience you have taken into account to inform that perspective is your own, then your conclusion is incomplete.
[Related: How to Deal with Sexist Humor at Work]
Take action for equality.
Amplify feminist books, movies, and more: A recent analysis of popular films across eleven countries found that only 23% featured a female protagonist – a number that closely mirrored the percentage of female filmmakers (21%).
Why does this matter? Movies, books, newspapers, podcasts, and other media have lasting effects on cultural perceptions of gender, race, and sexuality. These media offer women and all marginalized populations a powerful platform to share their stories and perspectives, and allow a much more diverse group of people to see themselves in popular characters.
But, the film and publishing industries remain heavily male dominated, and popular narratives commonly portray women as one-dimensional or as sex objects, or they are excluded altogether. You can amplify the voices of the women rewriting this narrative by watching, listening, reading, and investing in the media they produce.
Teach girls their worth, challenge what it means to be a "man," and model that behavior yourself. If there is a young girl in your life, you may already be doing things like reminding them that they are strong, capable, and deserving of the same respect as boys.
You may already be making sure they know they are more than their appearance by praising them for their strength, intelligence, leadership, and athleticism. But…are you modeling these behaviors yourself? Are you saying these things, but then showing her through your actions that a woman’s job is to take care of everyone else before herself? Are you saying these things but then showing her through your actions that her peace, her joy, and her rest and recovery are less important than her to-do list? Are you saying these things, and then showing her through your actions that her worth does in fact depend on her beauty, and gray hairs, wrinkles, and fat are things to be reviled and avoided at all costs? If she can’t see it, can you really expect her to be it?
Now let’s talk about the boys. And the men. Men who wear skirts and ballet flats, simply because they find them more comfortable. Men who cry at romantic movies. Men who like makeup. Men who would rather run a family than run a business. Men who practice empathy and forgiveness. Men who can listen with humility, and admit when they are wrong.
If you dislike the kind of men who have dominated the American political sphere in the past years, then you have to allow any young boys in your life to develop an understanding of manhood that is not dependent on their loudness or aggressiveness or "ability to take charge" – which is usually the male-friendly version of bossiness – or how they dress or what colors they like or whether they cry a lot.
Because at the end of the day, a "real man" is simply any man who is living his truth. And you cannot lift up the future generation of women without enabling the future generation of men to break free of toxic masculinity and the expectations that are there to shackle them.
There are so many things in your bubble, in your community, that you have the ability to change.
I hope you see that there is a lot you can do to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness against bias, and take action for equality. And it doesn’t have to involve marches, fundraising, or calling your senators every day (although if those things excite you, keep at it!).
But, that does not mean it’s easy. In fact, building awareness of our own biases, taking accountability for where we may even be contributing to the problem, and putting in the effort, day after day after day, to truly be the change we want to see in the world, is the hardest and most important thing we can do.
Trish Golas is passionate about diversity, inclusion, and belonging, and helping others be their best selves.
Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.
Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc.
Researcher, DEIB advocate, lifelong learner. Currently obsessed with how the principles of the future of work intersect with and can enable diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. I am driven by joy and connection, and passionate about helping others be their most authentic selves. I am trained as a scientist and I bring my exacting judgement and ability to weigh risks and benefits to every question. I have worked in R&D for consumer products for over... Continue Reading
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