As a young girl, I remember being outraged at the inequalities I saw in the world, but I learnt to stop expecting explanations for why they existed from people who obviously didn’t know the answers either.

Because it’s always been like that.

Over the course of my life, when I couldn’t bring myself to accept what couldn’t be changed – and there have been a few of those– I’ve tried to make sense of my overwhelming emotions by imagining what circumstances could have conspired to produce the situation that was confronting me. “Because it’s always been like that” has never been a compelling enough reason for me to accept illogical facts – like men deserving more in life just because they ask for more, and the many other kinds of selfish and unreasonable behaviour that we see so much of.

Where it may have come from

When considering the question of gender roles and how we ended up where we are now, I’d like to offer this perspective on the way forward.

At the end of the Stone Age, around 10,000BC, when we stopped living in small groups and started living in larger societies, a power shift took place that women haven’t seemed able to recover from.

I’ve got a theory about how this may have started but bear with me, because it has no basis in fact, just in my own observation of life.

If you’ve ever gone on holiday with other families to a place where everyone has their own cabin or chalet, you’ll know that one of the adults from each family or group ends up having to stay in the cabin to get the urgent washing done or the small children bathed and rested, while everyone else goes off and keeps the older children occupied or gets the outside jobs done. This differs from a hiking or camping trip where everyone cooks together in a communal setup and does everything together while they travel, fish or explore.

When life changed in the transition from a nomadic hunter-gather lifestyle to a settled lifestyle, it’s not hard to imagine how as domestic duties became separate from work duties or duties relating to the wider community, a division of responsibility and ultimately power took place, probably quite invisibly.

The thing about illogical rules is that they end up being added to and expanded on until it’s hard to see what makes sense and what doesn’t. Not unlike some of the DIY renovation work that was done on our house by its previous owners, everything looks okay from a distance, but once you get closer the issues become hard to ignore and even harder to find a simple, holistic solution to.

Fast forward to 2021 when women should, in theory, be able to participate in our knowledge-based economy on an even footing with men. All along, we’ve had a brain capable of the same outputs as men and now we have access to education and other opportunities that previously were beyond our reach. But we’re stuck with a set of assumptions and conventions that no longer apply, such as every home containing a nuclear family and every family being provided for by a male, who’s supported by a female who stays home to keep the home fires burning. We know this is still an assumption, because it’s how pay structures are justified, school hours are set, and our tax system set up.

Taken a step further, we know that around 20% of households in Australia are lone-person households and about 10% of those are single parent households. Roughly half of the 20% of individuals living alone are women, as are most of the single parents. That 20% – or about one fifth of the population – are women who live alone and have sole financial responsibility for themselves and possibly sole or shared financial responsibility for their children. That means we’re talking about a sizeable number of women to whom the current assumptions don’t apply.

Consider this

We’ve done a lot of catching up, but to be fair we were a long way behind.

Until the Australian Married Women’s Property Act of 1884 was introduced in Victoria, unlike unmarried women, married women couldn’t own property, enter into contracts, sue or be sued.

In Australia until 1966, women who worked for the Commonwealth public service were deemed to have retired from service when they got married.

In Australia until 1983, a woman needed authorisation from her husband to apply for a passport.

For a long time we were prevented by law from doing what a man could do, but that’s not the case anymore, so what’s stopping women from getting the same results as men? The reasons may not be clear, but the results are.

In Australia in November 2020, the national gender pay gap was still 13.4%, with women’s average weekly ordinary full-time earnings across all industries and occupations being $1,562 compared to $1,804 for men.

This information was detailed in a report titled Australia’s Gender Pay Gap Statistics by a department of the Australian government, the Workplace Gender and Equality Agency. The report goes on to say that the gender pay gap is highest in professional, scientific and technical services at 25.3%, followed by financial and insurance services at 24.1%, health care and social assistance at 20.7%, and is lowest in public administration and safety at 7.3%.

And it’s not that more men than women are getting professional qualifications either. According to a paper by Professor Emeritus Frank P. Larkins of The University of Melbourne, in 2016 females accounted for 58% of all domestic students enrolled in Australia Universities, which he indicates is a global trend.

But the snowball is still rolling

According to a Mercy Foundation report, women at the opposite end of the age spectrum are the fastest growing group to experience homelessness in Australia. The 2016 Census reported that the number of women over 55 experiencing homelessness increased by 31% compared to 2011. This figure is almost double the growth rate for people experiencing homelessness in Australia which according to the last Census was 14%.

The report cites the following causes:

  • working part time or casually throughout their lives
  • taking time out of the workforce to care for family
  • bearing the brunt of the gender pay gap
  • an increasingly unaffordable private rental market
  • age discrimination.

To make matters worse, women in particular seem to be playing what could be described as an unwinnable game when they’re encouraged to go after what they want

In a conversation with journalist Stephen Dubnor on the podcast No Stupid Questions, psychologist Angela Duckworth tells us that “women have been discriminated against when they have been perceived as ‘less nice’ whereas men can ‘sort of get away with it.’”

She goes on to say, “In social cognition which is the technical term psychologists use for how we perceive other people, the dominant theoretical framework is that one of the ways we judge people is on how warm they are and how competent they are. In a study done at a male dominant engineering firm, they found that for men to be seen as confident, they need to also be seen as competent. For women to be seen as confident, they need to be seen by others as both competent AND warm.”

She also noted that “voters will not vote for a woman they don’t like, even if she is qualified, but they will vote for a man they don’t like, if they think he is qualified.”

The rules of our society may not be logical, but their outcomes are predictable

While all this has been going on, women have gotten better and better at juggling their responsibilities and keeping all their balls in the air. Getting on with whatever needs to be done without complaining or expecting life to be fair or demanding a round of applause every time they show up for work with less sleep than they need because they’ve been up all night with a sick child.

Could this be part of the problem?

All this time we’ve been training to be more stoic, more determined and more hardworking, which are things we’re already good at, to prove to men that we’re as good as they are. Should we have been working on the skills that we’re terrible at, instead?

Do we need to consider whether we’re match fit for the game we’re trying to win?

An excellent article in the publication The Atlantic, quotes Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of Women Don’t Ask, as saying that “in studies of business-school students, men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and that when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men do.”

The article goes on to say that “at Manchester Business School in England, professor Marilyn Davidson has seen the same phenomenon and believes that it comes from a lack of confidence.” Each year she asks her students what they expect to earn, and what they deserve to earn, five years after graduation. “I’ve been doing this for about seven years,” she has written, “and every year there are massive differences between the male and female responses.” On average, she reports, the men think they deserve $80,000 a year and the women $64,000—or 20 percent less.

It might not seem so, but this could be the good news we’ve been waiting for.

We’ve gotten this far despite our woefully inept negotiating skills. We haven’t asked and been turned down, we haven’t even asked. Imagine what could happen if we learn to get better at asking for what we want, in a way that almost guarantees we’ll get it? By framing our arguments intelligently and strategically, and having counter offers in place that consider what success looks like to our opponents.

What skills are going to get us there?

The skills that may give us a better shot at gender equality could be the invisible skills of confidence, negotiation and charisma. It’s not enough to just be able to do a job as well as a man can, we already know we can do that, we need to get better at valuing ourselves, being strategic about our strengths and weaknesses, and finding strength in numbers.

We need to consider what tools will equip all women to create power for themselves and each other in the future rather than waiting for power to be given to us. We need to teach women and girls the commercial value of compassion and empathy, and the compounding effect of lifting other women up as we climb. We need to teach women and girls about critical thinking, money, business and the habits that translate into success. Most of all, we need women to know that on their own, they’re vulnerable, but together they could be formidable.

What can we do today?

Starting today, every woman and girl could look around themselves and see how the skills, experience and personality they already have, could be used to help or support other women or girls.  For women in particular, altruistic entrepreneurship holds enormous potential as a solution to the problems they face.

Confidence, negotiation and even charisma are skills that can be learnt. If you do nothing else this week, watch Olivia Fox Cabane’s compelling video on charisma and consider reading her book. The link to her video is here:

We know that women are better at caring for others than they are for themselves, so if we can’t bring ourselves to fight this battle for ourselves, could we find the strength to do so for our mothers, daughters and sisters before it’s too late?

We’re stronger than we know, and I have a feeling that once we start thinking differently about what right now looks like an unwinnable game, we might surprise ourselves with the score at full time.

What you can do

If you liked this episode, talk to someone else about it. If you loved it, talk to two. Like yawning, positivity is infectious so let’s see what we can do about spreading it around.

Listen time: 13 mins


Older women and homelessness
Olivia Fox Cabane: Build Your Personal Charisma: