More and more, it’s becoming a woman’s world—or, at least, that’s what we try to tell young girls. As the women’s movement has gained traction throughout the last century and traditional gender roles have eroded, Western society has shifted toward a more equitable split in terms of employment prospects for men and women.
Once a marginalized group, young women today are encouraged to work hard and obtain high-status careers in law, medicine or politics, ever reminded that they can do anything men can do and have all the same rights. The benefits of these changes are massive and obvious: disparities in employment opportunities, economic and social status, and earning power for women in developed countries have all increasingly come in line with those traditionally enjoyed by men.
In Canada, the idea that a woman couldn’t become a doctor, an executive or the Prime Minister if she worked for it is ludicrous in this day and age. The problem, however, is that so much is made of the gains made that we are starting to coast, rather than working to continue improving. There is still so much to be done, both at home and abroad, to help working women.
An interesting example of the ongoing deficit was highlighted in a Globe and Mail article this week. Margaret Wente recounted the stories of several accomplished young women in competitive fields who, it seemed, felt the need to hide their accomplishments for social reasons. These lawyers and engineers would conceal their professional status from other people—mostly men—because they felt stigmatized at the prospect of having greater earning power. Indeed, it’s enough to call into question how great the gains have truly been.
Such anecdotal evidence is particularly jarring when you consider the wealth of opportunity available to young women these days. For example, the numbers of women undertaking post-secondary studies is at an all-time high in most parts of the world. Particularly in the developed world, women are taking on increasingly prominent roles in society as well. They are close to outnumbering men in academic fields, and are gaining in number even in highly male-dominated jobs (think trades and sports). For all the progress made throughout the 20th century in women’s rights, both social and economic, there are still many issues that plague us, most notably in the sphere of work.
Truth be told, it’s still a man’s world in many ways. Men dominate corporate boards and leadership roles, make up the large majority of political representatives, and tend to earn more money than women in equal positions (although this gap is getting increasingly small). One of the problems with companies and industries that are founded on “old boys’ clubs” is that they tend to favour men in their hiring, necessitating a certain level of affirmative action to ensure an appropriate number of female employees at most levels. This sort of active selection is not without controversy, however; as with quotas for employing visible minorities, the notion that a person has an advantage based an inborn trait rather than skill or achievement is contentious.
So, it really comes down to what we are encouraging young women to do. If they’ve worked hard and paid their dues to move up in the world, why should they ever feel the need to hide it to make men feel more comfortable? Really, all people should reject the notion that achievement leads to alienation and encourage women to be proud and open of their accomplishments.
Quite frankly, if women have to hide who they are to gain acceptance, the long struggle for rights seems in vain. There are so many women in the world who can only dream of the rights and opportunities available in countries like Canada. The road has been long for women in the workplace, and there is a still a long way to go. If we’re ever going to get to that true ideal, the equality that women so justly deserve, it all has to start with a shift in mentality—and, as before, women themselves have to lead the charge. They need to continue to work hard, be strong, make no excuses or apologies, and never underestimate their own abilities. If they can keep on that path, soon it will be men who need to worry about catching up.