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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Thu 11-Apr-19 09:55:24

Guest post: “Gender stereotypes hold us all back”

The Fawcett Society are launching a new Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood. Sam Smethers, the Chief Executive, talks about the underlying causes of the gender pay gap.

Sam Smethers

Chief Executive, Fawcett Society

Posted on: Thu 11-Apr-19 09:55:24

(160 comments )

Lead photo

"It’s gender norms which make us reward men who ask for a pay rise but regard women who do the same as ‘pushy’."

It’s that time of year again when large employers are reporting their gender pay gaps. This year we (unsurprisingly) find that 45% are reporting bigger gaps than they did last year. So what is going on? Undoubtedly, the fact that employers are not required to have an action plan in place is one of the issues. We have to focus on the action required and hold employers to account for that, rather than just requiring them to report the gap. But we also have to get behind the numbers and the regulation to address the underlying causes, and the elephant in the room is gender stereotyping. By that I mean the social norms and expectations that limit what women and men or boys and girls should do.

Take who does the caring, for example. We build our parental leave system around a 1950s model of family life. Yes, we have shared parental leave, but it is structured in a way that means fewer than 1 in 10 dads take it up because it is paid at too low a rate. It starts from the assumption that it’s the mother’s leave to give to him and not a dedicated entitlement for fathers. Pregnancy discrimination drives 54,000 working mothers out of their jobs each year. Many mothers find themselves trapped in low paid part-time work. Working mothers experience a 30% pay gap by the time their first child is 20. All of this is underpinned by the expectation that mothers should be at home caring for children and not in the workplace, and that fathers should work to provide for the family. You may think we have left all this behind, but Fawcett research suggests that we haven’t.

Pregnancy discrimination drives 54,000 working mothers out of their jobs each year. Many mothers find themselves trapped in low paid part-time work.


Another cause of the gender pay gap is occupational segregation. This is where we see men concentrated in some sectors or roles and women in others. Take childcare and teaching, for example: both are grossly underpaid and undervalued (because women do them) - just 2% of pre-school teachers are men. Take as another example engineering, where just 7% of apprentices are women; or physics where just 20% of A levels are taken by girls. This is after decades of trying to ‘encourage’ and ‘inspire’ young women into STEM subjects. Girls’ attainment at GCSE is equal to or better than boys, but at each subsequent stage girls fall away. By the time they graduate or complete their apprenticeships, there are just a handful left. So why isn’t it working?

The answer to all of this is the way society is straight-jacketing our children into harmful gender norms and stereotypes. Often, as parents, we do it unwittingly. Sometimes we are simply so bombarded by the ‘pinkification’ of life, as campaigners like Let Toys be Toys have so powerfully demonstrated. Sometimes we give in and think ‘What harm can it do really?’ (I have four children, so I understand how hard this is). But, as our research shows, the truth is that pushing children to conform to gender norms is indeed harmful. It’s gender norms which make us reward men who ask for a pay rise but regard women who do the same as ‘pushy’, or which treat women in leadership roles as ‘imposters’. It’s gender norms which create the expectation of visual perfection for girls and which contribute to one in five 14-year-olds self-harming. It’s gender norms which limit boys to be one version of masculine, and which reinforce and normalise aggression in boys from a young age.

It is tempting to feel helpless in the face of such an enormous problem. But evidence suggests that all is not lost. Research shows the wiring in our brains is soft, not hard. Professor Gina Rippon argues we can mould our ‘plastic brains’, even as adults. The truth is, though, that we have a better chance of change if we intervene early on. This is why Fawcett is launching an exciting new Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood and we would love Mumsnet to be involved. We have to get to the underlying causes and make some fundamental changes to our education system, our parenting, and the commercial world too. Gender stereotypes hold us all back, but if we can change them, we can change the future.

You can read more about Fawcett’s Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood here.

Sam Smethers will be returning to this post on the 1st of May to answer some questions

By Sam Smethers

Twitter: @SamSmethers

Yabbers Thu 11-Apr-19 10:59:55

My employer has an action plan. They have been actively working to reduce the gap. They have done mandatory bias training for all staff. They have many different programmes in place which help remove the barriers to entry and promotion. They have worked with the female staff to try and find problems and solutions. We are the most female friendly organisation I've worked for.

Our gap increased this year to 46%. Why? Because we are in construction.

The problem is not that companies aren't doing enough. It is because the gap is a societal problem not just a business problem. My organisation cannot close the gap alone.

Propertywoes Thu 11-Apr-19 11:20:45

Brilliant post.

ThomasRichard Thu 11-Apr-19 11:24:26

Wasn’t it at a Fawcett society meeting in Parliament where it was stated that a House of Commons composed of 50% men and 50% transwomen would be job done for women’s equality? I’m not sure how you can fight gender stereotypes when you think men who say they ‘feel’ like women are actual women hmm

CallMeWoman Thu 11-Apr-19 11:34:34

Fawcett Society feels that trans women are women and should be allowed to access single sex services. how can you respect the difficulties that women face in the workplace due to their biology and then completely ignore those differences when a man decides he should be a woman, too? Humans cannot change sex.
www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/sex-gender-and-gender-identity-qa

BuzzPeakWankBobbly Thu 11-Apr-19 11:59:08

Given you, The Fawcett Society, feel transwomen [i.e. humans that were born male] are exactly the same as women [i.e. those of us born female], and therefore suffer exactly the same kind of oppression and limits on life (or more, if you believe the hype)...

I'd like you to explain how you can identify or work on any issues where the root cause is based on a difference in sexes. If men are women, your entire premise is groundless.

Whatsnewpussyhat Thu 11-Apr-19 12:03:41

This is why society needs to stop using the word gender when they mean sex.

Sex pay gap.
Women being paid less has nothing to do with some magical inner feelz or how they dress.

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Nyushka1 Thu 11-Apr-19 12:06:45

So there are some jobs that are dominated by 1 particular sex. I don't think that's due to discrimination. No matter how much people are trained it won't remove that fact that a bias exists and will always exist as long as differences exist between a man and a woman.

Woman have had the right to choose their occupation for decades. It's no coincidence that they're drawn towards more caring roles such as nursing whearas men can often be seen to choose work with higher risk attached ie offshore oil drilling.
Human beings will always stereotype as its a natural way we assess for risk as well as a whole host of other things, by assessing what is the norm. It would be counter productive to pretend that stereotypes don't exist

SonicVersusGynaephobia Thu 11-Apr-19 13:04:21

Do these gender stereotypes get imposed on transwomen in the same way as they are on females?

I know a lot of people will post saying "sex, not gender". Gender is the cause of the pay gap, imposed on the basis of sex. I understand why it's called the Gender Pay Gap (although it could be called the Sex Pay Gap).

However, it's disappointing to not see the word "sex" used once in the post to acknowledge that the people who are financially impacted by these negative stereotypes and structural discrimination are the female sex, never the male sex (even if they identify as women).

SonicVersusGynaephobia Thu 11-Apr-19 13:58:11

To better explain my post above - if a man in his career gets his qualifications and progresses up the career ladder and then, at say, age 45+ (a common age for transitioning in males) "transitions" to identify as a woman, no employer is immediately going to assume that they are now going to assume the burden of the responsibility of the home and children alongside their full-time job and assume they cannot perform their role in the same way they used to. Or assume that now they are a woman (in their mind) that they are now going to drop their hours and move onto the 'mummy track'. Or that they are going to hang up their hard-hat and steel toe-capped boots and leave the engineering construction industry to work in a nursery.

This impacts one sex only, whether that woman works in a school, or in engineering, likes maths or likes sparkles and flowers, they are impacted the by these gender role assumptions that are imposed on the basis of their sex, not on how they present their gender.

BuzzPeakWankBobbly Thu 11-Apr-19 14:18:18

...or accept the relevant womanly pay cut.

KingHenrysCodpiece Thu 11-Apr-19 14:20:03

I agree with Nyushka1

Last year I did the obligatory six form and further education investigations with DS who is interested in Electrical/Aerospace engineering. We looked at apprenticeships, BTECs as well traditional A levels then Uni.

In all the presentations in the 5 or so colleges we went to, you could count the girls taking engineering on less than one hand. In one electrical engineering class the total cohort was 40+. There was 2 presentations so roughly 20 in one and 20 in another.

There was one girl present in our time slot. Out of curiosity and ( a bit of annonyance) I asked the tutor how many girls he had last year. He said 2. He said the college was given funding to try and attract girls, and he delivers career option talks in schools, but the take up was still very low. He said he couldn't persuade his own daughter to show an interest in taking up engineering and she intended to go into media.

I saw the same pattern reflected when I accompanied 2 uni open days with my nephew for Architectural technology. All of about 20 or so max girls across all related subjects: Archietectual engineering, interior engineering, etc. Construction was particulary dire. Civil engineering had 3 girls. These were just open days, so perhaps not truly reflective, but the disparity was noticable.

I don't think the differences in earnings can truly be said to be mostly driven by employer bias etc. I think it more reflects differences attributable to unique sex preferences. If more girls are going to university and achieving more GCSEs than boys it does beg the question of why they are not actively choosing science based courses in the similar rates to boys who reportedly are underperforming. Careers in these occupations pay better than teaching or nursing. Of course a better question might be (and is imo) why these careers are perceived as less worthy of being paid more?

Ereshkigal Thu 11-Apr-19 14:43:30

Is it "gender norms" that mean that when aggressive male people say they are women and should be entitled to access programmes intended to benefit women, women should simply be silent and accept this without question?

Absolutepowercorrupts Thu 11-Apr-19 15:17:36

A House of Commons composed of 50% men and 50% trans women is composed of 100% men.
Women's rights are being forcibly removed from them every single day.
Sex is biological and gender is a social construct.
I really don't understand how the Fawcett Society that believes that trans women are women can change the gender Sex pay gap

aprarl Thu 11-Apr-19 16:49:52

Agreed. There is no gender pay gap. There's a sex pay gap.

I don't identify with some nebulous concept of femininity - stereotype-wise, I'm probably closer to male. But trust me, I've felt the full effect on my career over the years of being a biological female.

Your group is part of a wider problem with your unflinching "being female is really just an secret little feeling inside" attitude.

You are reinforcing the stereotypes you've said are harmful.

SonicVersusGynaephobia Thu 11-Apr-19 17:24:11

I don't think the differences in earnings can truly be said to be mostly driven by employer bias etc. I think it more reflects differences attributable to unique sex preferences.

I don't think anyone is saying that it is down to employer bias, it's societal bias. I also disagree that it's an innate sex preference for girls to go into "caring" roles,

The societal bias impacts how employers view women, but also how girls are treated in the education system, and how girls are treated in childhood, so that they don't consider engineering to be an option for them because they are, both consciously and unconsciously, bombarded with messages from the day are born that certain things are not "for girls".

That's why, when it's an all-girls school, there is less of that negative influence of sexist stereotypes and as a result more girls do maths and physics, and then engineering.

NewAccount270219 Thu 11-Apr-19 17:39:49

Yes, we have shared parental leave, but it is structured in a way that means fewer than 1 in 10 dads take it up because it is paid at too low a rate

I strongly object to this. I'm going to copy and paste from a thread I started the other day when the TUC said something similar:

SPL is paid at the same rate as statutory maternity pay! My DH is currently on SPL since I went back to work. If I was on leave right now I'd be being paid exactly what DH is - but it's too low for him but good enough for me?

Look, I get that in many families (not ours, but many) the man is the higher earner and that's a barrier to him taking leave. But basically this seems to suggest that women's wages are optional - 'pin money' - and so it's fine to throw them some token mat pay, but men need real money. And I find that sexist and offensive.

Quietlife333 Thu 11-Apr-19 18:27:08

It’s a Sex pay gap that applies only to Biological females. Women.

S1naidSucks Thu 11-Apr-19 18:43:29

When the Fawcett Society research the pay gap, are they researching gender or sex? Are they including transwomen in their research? Please answer, as surely ignoring any questions regarding the inclusion of transwomen, would be ridiculously ‘transphobic’?

SpartacusAutisticusAHF Thu 11-Apr-19 20:50:01

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

EmpressLesbianInChair Thu 11-Apr-19 21:19:22

How are the Fawcett Society defining women, and in what category do they place those people who identify as women part of the time?

grasspigeons Thu 11-Apr-19 21:48:09

Gender stereotyping in early childhood is something that i have 'battled' against with my sons and had some success. However, society is incredibly uncomfortable with boys who want to do sterotypically girlish things and my sons are aware of and limited by that. I am genuinley afraid that i have done my autistic child in particular a disservice by encouraging him to not worry about gender stereotypes due to the gingerbread presentation shown at schools suggesting that your brain might be a girls brain in a boys body if you like certain things. How can initiatives to limit gender sterotyping in early childhood work alongside positive affirmation and puberty blockers for those who already chose non sterotypical activities.

TheBullshitGoesOn Thu 11-Apr-19 23:03:01

What definition of 'women' and 'girls' are you using?

HumberElla Thu 11-Apr-19 23:03:21

Hi Sam

I agree that gender (or sex role) stereotypes are bad for children.

Do you think the answer is to do away with gender? Or do you think it’s better to tell children they can change sex?

Nyushka1 Fri 12-Apr-19 00:24:55

I just think people speak about this gap because they've heard it exists, when really we need to give specific examples of where gender (or sex however you want to call it) gap is an issue. For example if you take the group of young women just leaving university in fact women aged 19-24 are actually earning more than there equal age male counterparts.

Has the fact that women who often don't progress further in their work may do so out of choice been considered, not because they're being held back by men but because they leave to have children and often drop down to part time hours?

What about overtime, which accounts for 10% of employees overall pay in total annual earnings but is done mostly by men.

The biological fact that women give birth and often choose to be the primary caregiver isn't discrimination.

Men and women are not the same. The issue should be 'are women treated fairly?' and in general I think they are.

Giving employers quotas who they should employ is discrimination by its very design as it stands in the way of the person who is best suited for a particular role in place of someone based solely on their skin colour or whether or not they posses a penis or a vaginas. It bares relation to the old Marxist communist Russian ideology of equality of outcome in that everyone must be equal.
Its an ideology thats only ever outcome throughout history has been mass genocide, so aside from its flaws I feel this is reason enough to be doubtful.

The fairest way will always be through equality of opportunity, nobody says its perfect, but how would it work otherwise, "I'm sorry miss you can't train as a nurse we have our 50% it's only open to men now"??

One could argue that many professions should be paid more, however the society model we live in is capitalist so people or rather the Labour they produce is paid based on the value it is worth and we (generally) are not dictated to what we must pay for someone if we don't feel they are worth that much. This means if you don't like the wage you get you aren't forced to work, as in a free market all you have to do is find someone who will benefit from paying you more.

I know I'm blithering on and i believe people arguing that there is a pay gap are generally good people but please understand how dangerous it could be to go down this path and consider how many have gone down the same path beforehand all in the name of 'greater good'.

Please consider ALL stats in context, whatever the subject before deciding a cause is worthy to find out later its a complete myth.

There has been no multivaried camparison done on pay gap. Who would take a study seriously without looking at all the factors?

Its also a proven fact that places where this equality has been forced on society(Scandinavia) has actually led to the greatest disparity in the western world between employment of males and females.

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