Fix the problem, not women.
When we decide we want to address gender inequity, what is the most common response? “We need to do things for the women – mentoring programs! Confidence building! Leadership training!”
But what we really need to do, once we’ve set our minds to changing the inequity in systems and cultures that has perpetuated for decades, is to understand what will truly fix the problem. And when I say fix the problem, I do not mean fix the women.
Sadly, we see gender equity initiatives and programs focus too much on trying to get women to change – for example, to become more confident, to speak up, and to network like crazy, rather than fixing the system and environment around them.
While we have initiatives and programs for women in STEM that are well-meaning, at times they can continue to perpetuate biased systems and cultures. Teaching women to ‘be more confident’ is subscribing to an alpha-male culture where the loudest, most arrogant voice seems to come out on top. That’s what we call adapting to the system – and systems should be the one adapting to us.
Take the often-quoted reason for the gender pay gap: women don’t ask for pay rises as much as men. This justification has stayed around for a long time because it conveniently reinforces the status quo by maintaining that women are weak, timid, and bad with financial matters. Cue all the financial courses for women ‘training’ them to ask for a pay rise (while charging them for the pleasure).
Unfortunately for the status quo, and those financial courses, researchers from the Universities of Wisonsin, London, and Warwick found that women do in fact ask for pay rises as often as men. They just aren’t as successful. This research showed that while 15% of women were successful with the pay rise requests, 20% of men were successful.
If we focus on the root causes of inequity (in the case of pay rises, often it is negotiator bias and lack of sponsorship), it won’t be the women that we need to fix, it will be the system.
So, the next time someone suggests an initiative or program to address gender equity in STEM ask yourself ‘what is the actual problem we need to solve’? The more we focus on fixing the system, and leave the women alone, the better it will be for all of us.