The illusion of equality

A man and woman standing on piles of money. The man's pile is much taller.

Chloe Davison, 6 March, 2018

It is 2018. More than one hundred years have passed since women won the right to vote in Australia. In the last year alone, Iceland, New Zealand, Germany and many other countries around the world have all elected female leaders. Finally, equality is on the horizon. The light at the end of the tunnel is within reach – at the tips of our fingers.

Or so it seems.

Is the light simply a figment of our imagination, like a mirage on the horizon? Have we become content with the state of parity in today’s world and in doing so, created the illusion that we have almost arrived at “destination equity”?

A study conducted by Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s gender equality tribe, in collaboration with McKinsey and Company, found that 50% of men, and even more surprisingly 30% of women, think that women are “well represented” in senior leadership positions. When in reality, only one in ten senior leaders possess two X chromosomes[1]. Why are these statistics pivotal in today’s environment? Because this perception of today’s position on parity, reveals an illusion of equality, which equates to complacency and the end to pushing for progress. So, are we moving forward? Well, it is extremely hard to feel a groundswell of movement when we seem content with, or deluded by, the status quo.

If we look beyond our initial perception of today’s state of parity and take a hard look at the numbers, the world is not all sunshine and rainbows. In fact, parity appears to be slipping further and further away, as we sit complacently. The World Economic Forum released statistics that demonstrated with the current pace of progress, we can expect to reach pay parity, not in 86 years as previously predicted, but now within more than 100 years (depending on country)[2]. Beyond pay, the representation of females on Fortune 500 boards has not grown in the last three years; in fact it has declined[3]. The facts tell one story and the media, portraying a story of exciting progress, tells another. The media’s portrayal of the narrative contributes to the illusion that equality is in our grasp.

We like to believe that, as a society, we have evolved ethically. And while it is true that we have come far, perhaps we have not come quite as far as we trick ourselves into thinking. The notion of political correctness casts a thick fog over the racist and sexist culture that still lurks beneath, simply silenced, but never the less, ever present. It simply twists its way into our lives, undetected to the untrained eye – harder to spot. Brexit and the American election results shone a light through the fog and revealed that there is much more hate, racism and sexism in the world than we previously allowed ourselves to believe.

While these events and others have given voice to the far right, it is evident that they have also lit a roaring fire under the belly of those who stand for acceptance, understanding, and equality. In only the last year we have witnessed:

  • over three million men and woman[4], around the world, march for equality;
  • more women running for seats than ever before; and
  • millions of brave women taking to social media to share with their friends, family, and the world, their stories of sexual harassment, in the #metoo movement. A movement that revealed that this imbalance in power and old-school culture is still alive and well, and affects everyone around us, even our loved ones.

Perhaps we needed these events to see the world for what it really is, and to open our eyes to the work that still needs to be done.

Although young and with less than a year of experience in the workforce, my exposure to the effects of inequality, whether directly or indirectly, are far from zero. My friends and I recount stories of our professors telling blatantly sexists jokes in class; male classmates reducing our successes to the fact we are female; bosses sexually harassing us with vivid imagery in passing jokes; experiencing violent and controlling relationships; professional interviews where we have been asked what we have learnt from our boyfriends; when raising our voices against sexist behaviour to superiors, we have been accused of lying and our comments shunned aside; in performance reviews, superiors attacking our personality, but being unable to pinpoint specific and concrete actions to improve. The list goes on.

Studies show that discrimination and the gap of equal opportunity significantly increase as you climb the corporate ladder[5]. If these are the experiences of young, smart, passionate, strong-willed and fresh-faced women low in the ranks, I can only imagine the experiences of those above us.

This International Woman’s Day I challenge you, male or female:

  • To open your mind, and become aware of your own biases, by reading a book on gender equality in today’s workforce. I would strongly suggest Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.
  • To open your eyes to your surroundings. What is the percentage of female leaders in your workplace? If the percentage is high, is it high enough? What is the ratio of women to men in the next movie you watch? How often do they speak?
  • And to open your mouth and raise your voice. Call out your colleagues on sexist comments or behaviours, whether it is in the boardroom or at the bar, and speak up if you see inappropriate behaviour – because staying silent or carelessly laughing at a joke only feeds the problem.

While today is about celebrating how far we have come on the journey to create equal opportunity for all, regardless of gender, it is even more vital that we recognise that the fight and the journey are by no means over and that the destination of equality is far from our grasp. It is this realisation and awakening to our true situation, that will relight the fire to press for progress and push on down the road to equality and equal opportunity.

[1] Mckinsey & Co, Women in the Workplace Report(San  Francisco, 2017).

[2] World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report(n.a., 2017).

[3] Washing Post, The number of new female board members actually dropped last year (June, 2017).

[4] Fortune, Here’s How Many People Participated in Women’s Marches This Year, (New York, 2017).

[5] McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace Report(San Francisco, 2017).

Author

Chloe Davison

Chloe Davison

Bachelor of Business International (Finance) student, QUT Business School.

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