How the journey to understanding gender inequality is complicating gender equality progression

One of the longest enduring problems with the progression of modern gender equality, including in business and leadership, is a lack of fundamental understanding about sex and gender fluidity. As a society, we continue to separate sex and gender into categories and attempt to make sense of people on this basis.

In business and leadership this impacts everything we do – from the way we see ourselves and our role in the market, to the way we see our clients, peers, staff and define their roles too. This shapes how we market to them, service them, manage them, present ourselves, afford opportunities, relate and respond.

The relationship between biology and behaviour

Exploring how biology and behaviour interact is very complex, even for scientists. Whilst at a base level we understand that ‘sex’ refers to the biological sex of a person as assigned at birth and based on their physiology and ‘gender’ is a socially constructed role or identity, the two are often used interchangeably, misrepresented and misunderstood.

There have been examples of where scientific conclusions about biology and behaviour have been based in gender bias and assumption. Despite our best efforts to fully understand it, controlled tests do not always accurately depict real life outcomes.

While we cannot deny that there are some biological differences between sexes, the existence of a gene does not guarantee the expression of it. Further, hormones may vary and are not only influenced by biology, but also by environmental factors, including experiences. Culture therefore impacts far more than we realise. Both men and women have masculine and feminine traits. How this plays out depends on the individual.

When we hear people saying ‘men naturally this’ or ‘women naturally that’, it’s often assumed that this is part of our absolute biology, instead of fully understanding the role that culture and conditioning does play in our perceptions of gender roles, including our own. These misunderstandings will sometimes creep into literature designed to help individuals make sense of their own identities.

Examples include:

  • ‘Men are naturally not great communicators.’

  • ‘Men don’t like to ask women for help.’

  • ‘Women don’t need to be like men in order to be successful’ or;

  • ‘Women want support, men want to problem solve.’

This isn't to deny the influence of the way a system operates on the behaviour of participants, but rather highlight that human beings have infinite ability to evolve and adapt. 

Gender is in fact fluid, not fixed

We only need to look at the evolution of human beings beginning in the cave man days where it is believed we had more gender-neutral roles, to the way that wearing high heels used to be seen as a sign of masculinity and virility for men in 16th century Europe, to understand exactly how gender and gender identity changes with cultural trends.

Every aspect of human behaviour can be linked back to our need to ensure our own survival, including the way we separate people by social, gender status, etc, and how we assign roles accordingly. People then believe that these assumed identities are real to them, instead of understanding their preferences are, in part, socially constructed. It’s more about what human beings make our gender mean about us and each other than anything else. We love to assign labels to individuals; in this case we’ve assigned ‘ideal roles’ to certain genders and sexes.

Is it possible to eradicate gender bias?

The first step to disarming it is to understand that our biases are not actually real.

Whilst bias within itself is a very real phenomenon with very real impacts, our biases themselves are a result of how our brain organises and makes sense of our perceptions. How factual are our perceptions?

Neuroscientists, like Anil Seth, go so far as to say our perceptions of the world and self are ‘controlled hallucinations’, a ‘best guess’ based on the information our brain has already gathered about our experiences. Naturally, if we’ve been conditioned to believe that the success of a certain person looks like ‘this’ and our expectations of how they should exist in the world are ‘that’ we naturally rely on this information when making assessments of them and ourselves. He also explains that within the human population there is not one experience of consciousness.

If we go back to the 16th century example of men wearing heels as a sign of power and virility and compare how men who wear heels in 2018 are viewed, you quickly realise our perception is fabricated. Regardless of whether our biases are unconscious or conscious, they quickly become invalidated.

If we accept that our current biases are not real, why would anyone choose to hold on to them once aware of them? The answer again lies in survival – the fundamental belief it’s in our self-interest to perpetuate the current ‘norm’ instead of understanding that beyond letting go of everything we’ve ever known lies monumental growth and success.

In defining who you truly are as a leader and expert in your field, the first question to ask yourself is:

If none of your current ‘reality’ existed, and you could be anyone you wanted to be, who would you be, and what would you do?

 Shevonne Joyce teaches high calibre leaders and personal brands the secrets of how to be the true go-to brand in their industry and create businesses and brands that are as successful on the inside as they appear on the outside. For a confidential conversation, please get in touch.

Shevonne Joyce