How the Hell Did Gender Inequality Happen? Let’s Rewind

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We’ve been working towards gender inequality in board rooms, engineering teams and tech startups our whole lives.

By Ellen Petry Leanse (Technology Strategist and Leadership Coach)

A few days back my friend “Q” posted a pic of his two tousle-haired kids on his Facebook wall. They were wrestling, as siblings do, feisty and intense. In the pic, my friend’s son, four, looked a bit dubious. His sister, two, looked anything but. Her eyes glinted with determination and something in her grin said “I have him.”

The pic was a comment magnet, as you can imagine. As I keyed in my own (rescinding my recent offer to babysit) this appeared on the stream:

“Look at them! They are so adorable! <GIRL> is going to need her big brother, look out boys!”

There’s a video, “Rewind the Future” – a PSA from Children’s Hospital of Atlanta’s Strong4Life program – that shows a guy in his ‘30s, overweight, being prepped for emergency surgery. Heart attack, the dialog reveals. It’s no surprise. The guy weighs 300 pounds and shows all signs of a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle.

“How the hell does that happen?,” the doctor asks as he gets ready. And the story unwinds: soft drinks and pizzas and burgers at the drive-through, frosting-slathered birthday cakes year after year, all the way back to him in his high chair as an anxious-looking mom feeds him French fries to quiet him down.

It’s all shot from the guy’s POV and is very effective. Take a look.

I thought of it when I read that comment on my friend’s wall. Across the Valley – and beyond, everywhere in the world – we look at gender inequity and the price we all pay when people are limited to gender-driven roles. “How the hell does that happen?,” we want to ask. Rewind the reel and we all know how: little by little, bit by bit, over the course of a lifetime. Until we end up here.

Woman in a manager’s office, hands clenched as she gets the news her co-worker got the promotion she wanted. Smiles as her boss says “Maybe next time” and she walks out of the office, blinking.

Prepping late at night for a meeting, but holding back once everyone is in the room. Looking nervous, first day on the job, shaking hands with all of her new male colleagues. Noticing looks of judgement as she drops her kids off at school, wearing a business suit, as other moms linger around (“It’s a good thing some of us don’t work,” a neighbor once told me. “Otherwise, who would drive your kids to field trips?”).

Then, taking a business call on speakerphone with a car full of kids as she actually does drive to a field trip.

Maybe she steps up to things her male colleagues pass on, wanting to prove how well she can get it done. Earlier, sitting a few rows back in her college classroom, taking careful notes while the guys up front raise their hands. Makeup and fashion angst in high school, snide comments from other girls, waiting to be asked to dance. Dolls and dream houses before that, pink little dresses, someone saying she shouldn’t do something because “she’s just a girl.”

And then maybe someone saying that she’s going to need her big brother to watch out for her. That she can’t handle it without him.

That her value in the equation is “look out boys.”

I’m not saying that’s how girls are being raised today; the good news is a lot is changing. But if the young woman in my rewind is the same age as Heart Attack Guy (he’s 32), she’s also at risk. Because the messages we’ve received all along shape our image of ourselves, and that self-image holds many of us back today.

This is real, and it affects us all. Speaking as an ambassador for gender equality at the UN, actor Emma Watson recalled some of her rewinds:

“…at eight I was confused at being called “bossy,” because I wanted to direct the plays we would put on for our parents—but the boys were not. …at 14 I started being sexualized by…the press….at 15 my girlfriends started dropping out of their sports teams because they didn’t want to appear ‘muscly.’”

Each of us, regardless of gender, has been affected by the messages we’ve received, little by little, bit by bit, over the course of our lives. They come from society at large, the omnipresent stereotypes and role models in the media, well-intended family members, and friends whose comment remind us how and where we’re meant to fit in. Over time this input shapes what we think is expected of us, how we fit in, the decisions we make as we move forward in our lives.

It’s time to rewind. Let’s go back to some of those episodes in our past and shift the context. What can we learn from them and how can we change their impact? How did other people’s input on what was right for us possibly limit our self-image, have us begin to see ourselves as a subset of who we might actually want to be?

A message like the one I saw on Facebook reflects a subset of a person’s potential and a diminishment of their autonomy and self-sufficiency. I hope that my friend’s kids look out for each other all through their lives; yes, they tussle, but I also know they help and encourage each other, too. Let’s let them find their way without limiting either of them to the roles traditional gender thinking might decree. Praise the fire and spirit in her eyes, or how tenderly her brother's hand is holding her back, even as she pounces.

Let her be her for HER, not those future “look out boys” approval. If we’re not thinking that way, we’re sending out the wrong message. Maybe it’s time to rewind?


About the guest blogger: Ellen Leanse (@chep2m) works at the crossroads of technology, positive psychology, and design thinking. An alum of early Apple, Google, and a several entrepreneurial ventures, she has worked with innovators around the world and always comes home to a simple, human truth: we are all part of something bigger. Her Stanford class on Innovation is among the school’s highest-rated Continuing Studies courses, and will soon be offered online. Follow Ellen on Twitter at @chep2m for updates.