How to drive cultural change to shift stubborn gender roles

How to shift stubborn gender roles

gender roles
In news surprising almost no one, the 2019 Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia report showed Australian women in heterosexual couples shoulder far more childcare and domestic work than men.

This persists even when both working full time – and even when the woman is the main breadwinner!

Despite the hope that gender equality is a battle we’re on the way to winning, the uncomfortable truth is that gender roles remain deeply entrenched in Australia.

This matters for a number of reasons.

It matters because of how often people reach for the “Women just don’t aspire to leadership roles” argument without recognising that women’s decisions to slow down or opt out don’t happen in a vacuum – they happen because of the need to vacuum, and the fact it disproportionately falls upon women to do it.

Thinking the majority of Aussie men are going to be seized by statistics that show they need to take on more of the household chores and leap off the couch is about as unlikely as Donald Trump becoming a feminist icon. It’s not an easy sell.

Deeply entrenched behaviours and beliefs are notoriously hard to change. Shifting attitudes and practices will take concentrated effort from individuals, organisations, government and society – all of whom stand to benefit from more gender-equal participation in the home as well as in society.

On an individual level, we need to expect more from the men in our lives, rather than praising them for the bare minimum. Asking male colleagues how long they plan to take parental leave for or what they are baking for the work morning tea are small ways to challenge gender stereotypes and overcome basic assumptions. It’s also important to ask male leaders (not only female leaders) how they balance their work and family responsibilities.

Given how much kids learn through osmosis, the importance of role modelling gender-equal relationships for the children in our lives is critical.

Indeed, research shows that in households where mothers work outside the home, their adult daughters are more likely to be employed and have higher annual earnings than those whose mothers stayed at home. Further, their adult sons spend an extra 50 minutes per week caring for family members and hold significantly more egalitarian gender attitudes.

And we need to challenge gender stereotypes for both girls and boys. To date, the majority of efforts to challenge gender stereotypes have focused on encouraging girls to pursue male-dominated hobbies and studies, inadvertently valuing the ‘masculine’ over the ‘feminine’.

Challenging gender stereotypes is about ensuring all children are supported to pursue their interests and fully express themselves and their emotions. This means as we encourage girls to feel comfortable playing AFLW, pursuing STEM subjects or wearing shorts to school if they so choose, we also show boys that they can broaden their horizons too, whether it be nurturing their interest in the caring professions, learning to cook or wearing pink if they want to.

Organisations have an important role to play in challenging gender stereotypes too. Strategies to reduce occupational gender segregation (starting with outreach into schools and continuing into the workplace by recruiting for transferable skills and potential to increase diversity), increase the number of women in leadership roles and ensure gender equality in the ‘office housework’ (tasks with low promotability, like organising the office Christmas party or buying a colleague’s farewell gift) all contribute to changing culture and behaviour.

Organisational paid parental leave policies that better enable men to take parental leave (for example, extending the eligibility period for several years after the birth, or allowing the leave to be taken in different ways, such as a day per week) underpinned by an environment that supports and encourages male take-up of the policy is critical.

The federal government introducing a ‘use it or lose it’ component of parental leave set aside for the non-primary carer (usually the father) to encourage more men to take leave is another policy nudge in this direction. Research from both Sweden and Norway has found that paid parental leave policies that encourage men to take leave contribute to a more equal division of work.

Further, removing the barriers and disincentives for women to return to work is critical.

KPMG’s 2018 report The Cost of Coming Back: Achieving a Better Deal for Working Mothers found that it would cost some professionally qualified working mums almost $30 a day in tax, lost payments and out-of-pocket childcare expenses to increase their working days from three to four per week.

Other working mothers would lose almost $80 a day by moving from four to five days per week of work. Outcomes like this are at odds with the Government’s intention to boost women’s workforce participation as part of increasing our national productivity.

At a societal level, we need to recognise the importance of the stories we tell and the voices we celebrate, and how this shapes our cultural identity and establishes behavioural norms.

Gender disparities in the experts we cite in media stories, or which books are prescribed on our school syllabuses all contribute to gender stereotypes and inequality in attitudes and behaviours. Buying a book shortlisted for the Stella Prize is one way to celebrate Australian women writers and increase the diversity of voices that shape Australian culture.

It is also worth considering whether Australia should follow the UK and various other countries who have introduced laws or codes banning sexism in advertising. I

n June, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority banned ads that feature gender stereotypes (such as men lying around while women do all the cleaning or women having difficulty parking the car), following a report that found that gender-stereotypical imagery and rhetoric “can lead to unequal gender outcomes in public and private aspects of people’s lives.”

Inequality in unpaid care and domestic work remains one of the most significant barriers to addressing gender inequality more broadly. It is a critical lever in increasing women’s workforce participation and access to leadership roles. And ultimately it is up to all of us to eradicate harmful gender stereotypes that limit potential, stifle talent and hinder self-expression.


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