The other day, I was talking to a colleague who works in the HR department. We were discussing college days, and how our parents forced us to enroll for courses we did not want to pursue. While my parents wanted me to study Electronics and Communication Engineering (at that time, the field with best job prospects), her parents insisted that she opt for an MBA in HR, because that was “more suitable for women”. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.
I’ve only ever worked in a specific field all my life, but I’ve spent enough time talking to friends and family to know that there is no easy job or a job that’s expressly suitable for a particular gender. I know HR personnel have just as much of a hard time as developers, managers, sales executives, and technical support staff because I work with all of them on a daily basis. Gradually, I realized what people mean when they say “more suitable for women” – something essentially non-technical, which usually does not involve math or complex calculations. And I honestly didn’t understand this logic.
When I was in college – and any number of my friends can attest to this – I wasn’t a particularly bright or hard working student. The women always outscored me in most subjects. I never really worried about it, figuring that I was just lazy and the women were simply reaping the reward of hard work. Not once did I feel inferior due to my grades. Some of them told me that they studied hard because they wanted their parents to acknowledge that they could excel in the field of engineering and land a good job at a great company. This didn’t make sense to me either.
After a little more probing, I realized that this was ingrained into their minds at an early age. While boys were praised for any number of accomplishments, such as solving math problems, girls were praised mainly for art – song or dance performances. Children as young as six believe that intelligence is a masculine trait although there is no evidence to support it. So, at an age when I felt that I could do anything and conquer the world, girls were told that certain fields were off-limits and they should focus on activities “more suitable for women”.
Over time, they came to believe that compared to men they had to put in more effort at the same job to stand out. Conversely, if they underperformed, society would reinforce the idea that the job isn’t suitable for women. In the past, women have asked me to help them reformulate ideas for new startups. They would subsequently request me to lead their venture or startup. Even though they were significantly smarter, they believed that I was more qualified for a leadership role due to my gender.
Now, this is something I understood because I’ve seen it happen right in front of me. Our society is still, unfortunately, male dominated. Most of the CEOs of large companies are men. 96% of senior venture capitalists are men. Men also raise 42% more money through venture capital than women. Women believe a startup run by a man will have an easier time on the market because he will be viewed as competent and intelligent, especially in the technology domain.
I believe this problem isn’t related to ability or intelligence, but rather perception. You have to understand that when young girls are told or led to believe that they aren’t as smart or intelligent as boys, they tend to stay away from male-dominated fields, believing that there’s an underlying reason. That’s why there aren’t as many women in the fields of STEM; there aren’t as many female CEOs and only a third of the world’s entrepreneurs are women.
And so flows a vicious cycle. With fewer female CEOs in the world, less people invest in businesses led by an all-female executive team or with a female-only workforce. With fewer women entrepreneurs being funded, it’s less likely for their companies to thrive, succeed, and grow into a large one.
When I asked my female friends whether they've ever felt inferior to men with respect to intelligence or talent, I got mixed results. Several of them said that they've never once felt inferior, while others stated they'd felt inferior to men since as long as they could remember. Through my interaction with the latter group, I understood that this conditioning was usually subtle, from parents, teachers, friends, and even educational resources.
They remembered specific instances of parents pushing their brothers into specific fields, usually science or engineering, while making no such effort for their daughters. They remember their brothers being pushed to excel in "masculine" fields such as athletics, while they were steered towards more "feminine" fields such as arts and literature. Studies, while important, were never as crucial as they were for the boys, since girls were the fairer sex and in most cases, not expected to work after marriage. Over time, the conditioning was so perfect that they didn't realize that they were consciously being pushed into a certain field. It was only later, after much reflection, did they understand that they were stuck in a field they didn't like, believing it was the only one available to them.
While I consider this to be a very serious problem, I believe that the solution begins at home. As a young child, a parent's words carry more weight than you can imagine. Anything that a parent says will permeate into other aspects of life. So treat and encourage your sons and your daughters equally. Don't lead one gender to believe they're more fragile, less talented or intelligent than the other. Tell them that despite what society says, they can do and achieve anything they want, as long as they put in the hard work. After all, the only limitation to achievement is regressive thinking and ignorance.
Men and women aren’t equal; they’re thoroughly different, each with their distinct set of limitations and advantages. And I believe they bring their unique perspective to any problem that they may face. That being said, I do believe in equal opportunities for men and women. And while I believe that certain people may be better at certain jobs than others, they should not be dissuaded from following whichever path they may want to follow.
We are quickly reaching an age of development where societal and scientific achievements are viewed as incremental discoveries rather than breakthroughs. In such an age, if we don't demand that both genders contribute to their fullest potential, we as a society will not be able to grow as quickly or efficiently as we truly can. And in such a society, we cannot truly label ourselves as progressive until all of us have access to the same opportunities. After all, by denying opportunities to any section of the society, we risk losing out on yet another world-changing idea.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are personal and does not reflect the organisation’s views or efforts towards an inclusive and equal workplace.