In our post-#MeToo era, 60% of male managers claim they no longer feel comfortable mentoring young women.* And it's not just senior men in the workplace. In another study of younger males, Gen-Zs felt that feminism has "gone too far."**
And yet, the World Economic Forum calculates it will take us 135.6 years to reach global gender parity.*** That's an increase by a whole generation from last year's calculations, of a "measly" 99.5 years. This is in large part due to the pandemic. Thanks, Covid.
So, whilst we've experienced a much-needed surge in women's empowerment in recent years, the truth is our current fourth wave of feminism is not working.
Enter, Feminism 5.0
A fresh concept for a new world - one that's seen the cards thrown up in the air with hybrid working, woke culture, tech advancements, and powerful global events.
A logical philosophy to correct the imbalance that the sisters alone have been trying to solve on their own since the Suffragettes at the turn of the last century.
A truly inclusive approach that continues to empower and champion women, without making men feel lost, intimidated, unsure, uncomfortable, threatened, undermined, shut out... or that feminism has "gone too far."
Feminism 5.0 is as much about the men as it is the women. It takes both sides of the coin to work. As much as we've empowered women, we need the men to feel ok with being weak. As much as we encourage women's freedom of expression, we need the men to feel ok to ask questions. And as much as we're normalising career-minded women, we need to normalise the stay-at-home dads.
As the saying goes, if you want to go somewhere quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Sisters can do it for themselves, but together we can all get a lot further.
Men: allyship is vital here. Without your active involvement in the typically "feminine" arenas of childcare, household labour, elderly care, social admin, and healthcare, we simply will not move forward.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the principal cause for gender equality's regression to the 1950s, particularly in heteronormative family units where the responsibilities of childcare and household chores have defaulted to the woman. Of course, with many other factors already contributing to gender inequality (essentially all rooted in social conditioning), the past 24 months have greatly exacerbated the issue.
The following factors give men a "step up" in life: the gender pay gap; the career opportunities in STEM - still very male-dominated, with boys actively encouraged to pursue these fields from a young age, and; the social conditioning that allows men to be more confident and to assert their authority with little to no negative consequence.
So, biology aside, once a straight couple has entered parenthood, the duties of childcare default to the mother. Logically it just makes more sense for the higher-earning male to return to work in our capitalist world. We retreat immediately to the stereotypical breadwinner/caregiver dynamics. We see that on the occasions that the dad stays at home to watch the kids, he is given "babysitter" status (when they are indeed his own children). The days he picks them up from school, he is lauded by the other parents at the gate, who - surprise surprise - are all women. The times he takes care of household chores, he's "helping out."
The gender imbalance gets further compounded with the next generation now seeing their parents in these roles. Mum stays at home, dad goes to work.
Not all men, which is also the problem here. Anyone reading the above and relating to the familial situation - however accurate - may understandably feel attacked or demonised. The deeply-ingrained and hugely complex nature of gender inequality is not the fault of a single individual - so when situations like these are described the most common reaction is to go on the defence.
Take this back to the opening statistics concerning men's discomfort in the fight for gender equality and we start to see feminism's actions come from a place of women's justified frustration instead of a much more fruitful, strategic alliance.
Male allyship is the most important aspect to the fight for gender equality today. We've left out the "inclusion" part of D&I and, honestly, risked a huge asset in our leverage for success.
Logic dictates that if more women need a seat at the table, and most of those are currently taken up by the guys, they can serve as more powerful allies than their less senior female peers. If the board room tables and exec teams and investor meetings are still filled largely with men, can't they lift you up to even higher realms than sisters at your same level?
Of course, there's a place for women's only groups, but we need to be aware of the echo chambers we are creating here, and of the consequences our actions can have on our male counterparts.
As much as women have been left out of the board rooms and investor meetings and C-Suite discussions, men have been left out of our conversations. They need to feel comfortable enough to support us. Yes, I hear you groan, we may be doing more than enough already - but don't cut off your nose to spite your own face.
So, what next?
Hotly-debated quotas is an overly simplistic solution to an extremely complex problem. The risk of placing a less-equipped woman in a position of seniority does not match the reward potential. The fallout from a miscalculated hire or promotion can have severely negative consequences to both genders that will last years, if not decades. Instead, the natural paths to progression need supporting - not clumsily shoehorning in.
Part of being a good leader (male or female) is recognising and nurturing talent, regardless of gender (or skin colour, or age, for that matter). Forging a meritocratic environment sounds good on paper, but if those achievements are shouted about more loudly by a confident male versus a quieter, self-doubting woman - for example - then recognition goes to what's above the surface instead of digging a little deeper. The potential in your team may require a little more effort to identify and encourage.
Women can find a number of ways to improve self-confidence, by continuing to ride the wave of women's empowerment kickstarted by the Spice Girls in the 1990s. Freedom of expression and individual rights mean they shouldn't have to adapt their nature or feel obligated to match a more testosterone-fuelled behaviour, but until we reach true equality, Sheryl Sandberg's philosophy of "leaning in"**** is what is still required - as long as both sides are making the effort.
Crucially, the burden of the fight for gender equality should not sit wholly with women. We need to recognise that raising up someone else does not mean you get pulled down, but helps everyone succeed.
If you are a manager, it may require some training in leadership, unconscious bias, or emotional intelligence to recognise the wildly different ways your team members demonstrate their abilities. Managing people is hard, but spotting talent and fostering potential is uniquely rewarding. And, if you are one of the aforementioned 60% male managers who feel uncomfortable at the prospect of mentoring young women, ask yourself why.
If you are a leader, it is crucial to develop an inclusive culture that goes beyond simply providing flexible work to all - it's a workplace where the men won't feel teased for taking extended paternity leave or time off to support their families. It's an environment where, by the same token, women are asked about their kids and who's looking after them as much as the men are.
If you are junior, do not underestimate the positive power of seemingly small actions you can take on a day-to-day basis. To you, speaking up for a female colleague or calling out when she's been interrupted may be nothing, but it can be incredibly meaningful and supportive to your female peers. Sometimes it's the smallest things that are the biggest.
And from the workplace to home, if you are a father, contributing to household chores or childcare is not "helping out" when it's also your household and your family. One thing is handling your share of duties, another thing is who's taking responsibility to think about them. The sheer responsibility and mental load here adds to the burden many women endure in addition to everything else.
Initiatives like flexible working policies and unconscious bias training are a start, but the real power move lies within people's mindsets and behaviours. It is of course much trickier to change how people perceive others or behave in certain environments (read: male toxicity), and therefore a shift that will naturally take a while to achieve. But the more we talk about the issues, the more light we shed on what's happening. The more light on the matter, the better we understand. And the better we understand, the easier it is to help each other and find solutions.
Yes, this is something that will take a while to achieve, but hopefully not 135.6 years.
* "60% of male managers are uncomfortable interacting with female employees one-on-one. More than half (60 percent) of male managers say they are uncomfortable interacting one-on-one with female employees in and out of the workplace, according to a new survey." - https://leanin.org/sexual-harassment-backlash-survey-results
** "16 to 24-year-old men feel feminism makes it harder for them to succeed." - https://www.vice.com/en/article/y3zxmy/gen-z-men-attitudes-towards-feminism
*** "Another generation of women will have to wait for gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021. As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt, closing the global gender gap has increased by a generation from 99.5 years to 135.6 years." - https://www.weforum.org/reports/global-gender-gap-report-2021/digest
**** Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is a 2013 book encouraging women to assert themselves at work and at home - https://leanin.org/book