Gender inequalities in the workplace are perpetuated from childhood

Women’s careers aren’t just in the ether, they’re on the front pages of newspapers, inside glossy magazines, on the radio, across the internet and they’re being discussed on a daily basis in governments all around the world. It’s amazing that there’s so much buzz around women and careers; people are really talking about women’s rights at work, and attitudes are changing.

Things are getting really exciting for women at work. Sure, if you look at gender-split job statistics, the situation is pretty much as depressing as it’s ever been. But – BIG BUT – the John stat doesn’t account for what’s swirling around the media, and is inside the meeting rooms and minds of career folk (women and men) across the globe. Women have been legally entitled to the same respect, pay and job titles as our male friends and peers for many years and slowly but surely the reality is catching up with the legal framework. We want equality, but we want something more than that too: we want to stay uniquely and wonderfully female. The same pay, yes, opportunities, of course, but we don’t want to have to abandon our femininity at the office revolving door. For us, gender parity does not imply gender uniformity.

While everyone deserves to be received and treated equally at work, women must do it their own way, because being a woman is part of what makes you, you. The side-by-side vision of a naked female and a naked male validates the simple fact of life: we are different versions of the same species. There’s the obvious stuff and then there are the mysterious workings inside our heads. Our brain is arguably the most important thing about us. It makes us human and is the instigator of everything that we think and do. It’s our life control centre, and science tells us that for men and women there are brain wiring variations.

In the past, we’ve been wedded to the notion that men have better connectivity within each hemisphere, whilst women have better connectivity between the hemispheres. In an everyday sense, this explained why men excelled at spatial awareness and women at social cognition and multitasking. Neuroscience is notoriously complex but the latest large-scale research shows that gender brain differences may not be as clear-cut as we were led to believe. While some recent studies suggest no significant difference in crucial parts of the brain at all, the most recent research leads to the centre of the brain – the hippocampus, the part associated with emotion and memory. This is usually larger in men than women, but, without wanting to get too technical, some women have a larger, more male-style hippocampus and some men have one that is smaller and more female in style. This suggests the idea of a continuum of femaleness to maleness for the entire brain. Scientists found that the majority of the brains studied were a mosaic of male and female structures, meaning there is no one type of male or female brain.

I like this because it validates our own stance of overlap. The most successful person in the workplace, research says, is the woman who retains her female brain but who isn’t afraid to borrow some stereotypically male traits when the opportunity requires it. Success isn’t about pitting yourself against a man, it’s about learning to be your best – it’s about finding your place on the continuum and making it rock. Interestingly, brains aren’t fixed organs, they are constantly evolving and changing as we age, depending on how we use them. Neuroplasticity, as it is called, in part explains why little girls end up studying languages and the arts and little boys get filtered into STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects that frequently lead to more lucrative careers. Repetition reinforces the networks within our brains: baby girls and baby boys might start off with exactly the same brain software, but over time, as we unwittingly encourage boys towards Lego and trucks and girls into social situations that require capable communication skills, the map of association in our childhood brains is sculpted so that the function of the hardware is constantly altered by experience. We lead our girls to dolls and our boys to the top of trees, and then we wonder why society ends up treating women and men differently.

Hormones also play a part in this lifelong divide, as does parental nurture. More interestingly, though, this has a much more subtle impact – it defines what we believe about ourselves. We self-stereotype against ourselves as women, and then we live up to these restrictions.

There is a recent study using Asian-American women that perfectly illustrates the point. The group was divided and set a maths test. Just before the test commenced, half of the group were reminded that they were Asian, invoking the stereotype of Asians having a high maths ability. This half did better in the test. However, when they were reminded of being female (which invokes the stereotype of poor maths performance), they scored lower on the test than the control group. The point is that while men do tend to outperform women in assessments of mathematic ability, for example using the test results of American SATs exams, in reality women aren’t actually worse at maths (see here), we’re just stereotyped into thinking that way.

In the workplace, this presents as women not reaching for leadership positions, or being too conservative in their entrepreneurial expectations for the simple reason that we believe that we don’t belong at the top. We aren’t all professors in waiting, but we should all be able to imagine ourselves where we really want to be at work. Not where society or our stereotyped brains expect us to land. Your career brain, the one you rely on to muster confidence, the one that assists you in awkward networking situations, pay negotiations and everything else in between, may not currently be on your side and thats in part due to stereotyping and nurture. When you know the reasoning behind where your brain is at, it allows you to make positive changes to redirect those channels – to change the hardware, so that your brain (your unconscious thinking) is aligned to your reach-for-the-stars career dreams.

Forget the obsession with our bodies

We are OBSESSED with our bodies.

Or rather, we are obsessed with everything that’s wrong with our bodies. We are obsessed with shrinking our bodies, toning our bodies, sculpting our bodies, getting lean and perking up, burning fat and slimming down, flattering our figures and flattening our stomachs, accentuating curves and disguising flaws, battling the bulge, beating the scale, dropping dress sizes, becoming the best version of ourselves that we can be! And for what? What are we in pursuit of when we do those things?

It must be something good, because those things are not fun. Ask anyone on day five of the cabbage soup diet how much fun they’re having, and let me know if you get out alive. Of course, we’re not supposed to admit how not-fun it all is, we even go as far as lying to ourselves – I really am enjoying living off cayenne pepper and maple syrup cocktails, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself! The facade begins to crack when we start crying over our friend’s pizza and wondering if tissue paper is edible, and if so, how many calories?

Why do we keep lying to ourselves? Why do we willingly inflict so much discomfort, even pain, on our bodies? What for? We do it to get the perfect body – flawless, unblemished, ideal.

Some of us spend our entire lives chasing the ideal body. The one that will finally make us beautiful; the one that we’re told will finally make us happy. We picture that body while we run desperately on the treadmill and our knees feel like they’re about to buckle. Just one more mile. We imagine that body when we say no, yet again, to our favourite dessert. That’ll go straight to our thighs. We have visions of that body when we step on to our scales and the numbers flash frantically in front of our eyes before they settle on our fate. Please, just two more pounds this week, we’ve worked so hard. And we have worked so hard. We starve, we sweat, we cry standing over those scales and fall to pieces at the sight of our naked reflection. We vow to be better next week. Everywhere we go we carry around our feelings of not being good enough. They weigh on everything we do. I can’t wear that at my size! I’m not hungry, I ate earlier, I swear! They would never be interested, just look at me. I’ll do it once I’ve lost the weight. Our entire lives get tied up in the chains of the ideal body, only to be unlocked once we’ve earned it.

Perfection is the key. And it’s always just slightly out of our reach.

There’s always another pound to be lost, another problem area to fix (they seem to pop up out of nowhere, almost as if someone’s invented them …). But we still believe that we can get there. We still believe after all this time that if we hate ourselves enough we’ll end up loving ourselves. We don’t realise that we’ve been tricked.

How did we get here? How did we reach a place where it’s 100 per cent normal to hate your body? Every female I’ve ever known has disliked some part of her appearance, or all of it. We’ve been convinced that changing the way our bodies look should be our ultimate goal in life, and although women have been the primary target of these messages for the past century, these days no body is safe. Men are increasingly being told that their value lies in their muscles, and that looking like anything less than the cover of a fitness magazine isn’t good enough. Thanks to toxic expectations of masculinity, they’re also being told not to talk about the body-image issues they’re struggling with.

Hating your body is the new normal. Most of us know someone who’s had an eating disorder. Someone who’s had cosmetic surgery. Someone who’s lost and gained the same 20 pounds over and over again. People of all sizes, all ages, all genders, all colours, and all abilities are being affected by body-image issues. We’re too fat, too wrinkled, too masculine, too feminine, too dark, too pale, too queer, too different. We’re always ‘too’ something, compared to the ideal body.

The pressure becomes too much for us to handle. Our societal self-hatred is spreading like wildfire, slowly but surely we’re all being set aflame in the pursuit of perfection.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this. You already know. You see it every day. It’s in the adverts for the new! Easy! Fast! Lose 10 Pounds in 10 Days! Weight-loss plan. It’s in the sky-high posters of model bodies selling everything from perfume to burgers. It’s in the never-ending murmurs of how many pounds have been shed this week that you overhear on the train, at work, among friends. It’s in the TV breaks telling you how breast enhancement could change your life. It’s in the magazine pages you flick through to pass the time, raving about the latest juice cleanse or detox. It’s in the back-handed compliments about looking good ‘for your age’, and the concerned comments from family members about when you’re going to do something about, well, you know … It’s in the supermarket aisles you walk down filled with ‘guilt-free!’ reduced fat, sugar-free, zero carbs, made-of-nothing-but-water-and-air food products. It’s when you try to unwind with your favourite film or TV show and parading before you is a cast filled with nothing but thin, white, beautiful, young, able bodies. You might not even notice it, but you learn from it. You learn in millions of little ways every day that there is an ideal, and that you don’t match up to it. So that when you get home, away from the murmurs, curtains drawn against the pictures, adverts silenced and screens turned off, only you, your body, your mind, and the quiet … You still know, because there it is in your mirror staring back at you. Everything that you’re not. Everything that you need to change. All the ways that your body is wrong.

You know.

If you’re anything like I am then you’ve known for a long time. Ever since you were first old enough to take in the words, the images, and the lessons. The first time I remember thinking that I was too fat is when I was five years old. That’s all the time it took in the world to believe that I was too much. I was too big, too soft, too brown, too ugly, my stomach was too round and my hair wasn’t blond enough. I remember spending hours in fantasies of what I would look like when I grew up, grasping for reassurance that one day I would be beautiful. Beautiful meaning thin. Thin was the only option, of course that’s what I would become, that’s what all the representations of beautiful women around me were: Barbie-doll thin, Disney-princess thin, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe thin. To my five-year-old mind, that’s what women were supposed to look like. The fact that I was still a child didn’t stop me from comparing myself to them.

Recent studies suggest that children as young as three years old have body-image issues and at four years old are aware of how to lose weight. The biggest concern a child that age should have is whether they can do a cartwheel or memorise the alphabet, not whether they’re too fat or how many calories it takes to change your body. The obsession is starting earlier and earlier.

And this is what those thoughts grow into:

97 per cent of women in a survey conducted by Glamour magazine admitted to having at least one ‘I hate my body’ moment a day, with an average of 13 negative body thoughts every day.

In a survey of 5,000 women by REAL magazine, 91 per cent reported being unhappy with their bodies.

The Centre for Appearance Research found after surveying 384 British men, that 35 per cent would trade a year of their life to achieve their ideal body weight or shape.

54 per cent of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat, according to an Esquire magazine survey.

There are thousands of statistics and surveys showing what the real story of our body image is. That we spend every day picking out our flaws and tearing our reflections to pieces. That we put our entire lives on hold because we don’t think we’re worthy of living in the bodies we have. That we would trade in years of life, risk illness, pain, and even death to turn our bodies into something worth loving. And that we’re teaching our children to feel exactly the same way about themselves. Statistics are easy to glaze over, so here’s the simple truth: we are destroying ourselves for an unobtainable and unrealistic body type. The things that we’re willing to do for the ideal body speak for themselves. We go hungry, we deny ourselves essential nutrients and ignore our most basic needs. We push ourselves past our physical limits until the room starts spinning and we can barely move the next day. We spend hours applying lotions and potions with promises of miraculous results on the label. We stuff ourselves into elastic casings to smooth out our silhouettes or train our waists into shapes nature never intended them to be. We drink teas and take pills that make our heartbeats race and make sure we don’t leave the bathroom all night. We attend groups every week where we sit in circles fantasising about goal weights and pretending we don’t hear it when someone’s stomach rumbles. We live off nothing but juice, convinced that our bodies are full of evil toxins that must be cleansed. We pay people thousands of pounds to cut into our healthy flesh, lift it, pin it, tuck it, suck it, staple it, reshape it and stitch us back together again.

And it isn’t a select few people who are going to any lengths necessary to get the body of their dreams, we’re all doing it. The stay-at-home mum who lives down the street, the girl you went to school with, your old English teacher, the star athlete, the savvy businesswoman, the A-list celebrity, the millionaire entrepreneur. The pressure of perfection leaves none of us behind. And besides the physical lengths we go to, the things we willingly inflict upon our bodies, there’s an even darker side to our obsession with perfection, and that’s what it does to our minds. The real cost of a diet isn’t those irritating hunger pangs you have to ignore, it’s the constant preoccupation with food, the never-ending counting and weighing and bargaining that takes up so much mental real estate.

The hatred we have for our bodies doesn’t stop at our thighs. It takes over our entire sense of self. It affects our relationships, how we treat others and how we think we deserve to be treated. It seeps into our professional lives, determines what we have the energy to accomplish and the will to aim for. It saps our ambition beyond dropping dress sizes. You can’t dream of becoming an artist, an explorer, or a leader when your dreams are occupied by visions of thin. It makes us believe that we don’t even deserve to exist in the world, to be seen and heard and valued in the bodies we have. It takes away all of our power. If we don’t measure up to societal standards of beauty, we see ourselves as failures, burdens, and disgraces.

We don’t just hate our outer shells, we hate our whole selves. And it’s exhausting. I know I’m not the only one who feels completely worn out by it all. Those extra pounds we’ve learned to see as hideous flaws turn into the weight of the world on our shoulders. Do you feel it? That heaviness? That pressure? That’s the weight of all the ways you’ve been told that you’re not good enough. In our current cultural game of How To Be Beautiful, none of us are good enough. We keep playing by the rules because we’ve been promised that it’ll all be worth it in the end. Even if we stumble, fall off the diet, or regain the weight, we get up and try again because we can still see it. The image of the body that will finally make us happy.

Want to be in on a secret that nobody ever told me in all of my years chasing the ideal body: happiness is not a size. It isn’t a number on a piece of fabric, it can’t be found in a calorie count, and it sure as hell isn’t hiding in your bathroom scales. I know that’s hard to believe – after all, everything around us says otherwise. We’ve been told for so long that if we just work hard enough the ideal body will be within our reach. Once we’re there it’ll all be worth it, we’ll be beautiful, desired, successful, and, finally, good enough. Except by now you might be starting to realise that you’ve been playing by those rules for a long time, for as long as you can remember, in fact. You’ve tried everything you possibly could, you’ve sacrificed so much time, energy and life to get the ideal body and still you look in the mirror and see something so flawed. So imperfect. So human. How can that be possible?

Take that weight off your shoulders. If you’re reading this then that probably means you’re tired of chasing the impossible. You’re tired of waging war against your body and never ever feeling like you’re good enough. The problem is that you just can’t see another way. How do you let go of the rules and realise that you’re good enough already? How do you make peace with your body?

First of all, we have to unlearn all of the lies we’ve been taught about the way we look. Then, slowly, we can learn the truth instead. If it doesn’t happen straight away or if it feels like it’s too difficult, I want you to remember that you are fighting against a lifetime of negative conditioning about your body. It’s not easy to undo all of that and embrace a new way of thinking. So be patient with yourself, be kind to yourself, and most of all, keep reminding yourself that you deserve better. We all deserve better than spending our lives hating our bodies.

Lesson number one: the image of the ideal body you’ve been holding on to for all these years, is a lie. The images that fill our minds when we think about what’s beautiful aren’t creations of our imagination, they’re from the hundreds of media bodies we’re exposed to every day. With every magazine page, every film, every advert, every TV show, every music video, every time we turn on our screens or walk down a billboard-lined street we see it. We see her. The fashion model, the Hollywood star, the girl with the golden hair and honey smooth skin. Sometimes the hair is sleek and dark, the eye colour might vary and very occasionally the skin colour does too, but two things remain the same: she is beautiful, and she is thin.

If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, we now have the faces that launched a thousand diets, a thousand beauty regimes and a thousand different kinds of self-loathing. From seeing their bodies plastered wherever we go, we learn what our culture’s idea of perfection is, which bodies are celebrated and lusted after, what we should all be striving for. We’re never allowed to forget.

If aliens ever did descend upon Earth, and confined themselves to a small room with only a television and a stack of magazines in order to learn about humankind before integrating themselves into the community, what would they think? Probably that our women are all five foot ten, weigh about 110 pounds, with gravity-defying globular breasts, faces without a blemish to be seen, are naturally hairless from the nose down and that we pretty much all die out after the age of 35 (except the few that become mothers, cougars, or sad-looking old women). They’d probably also think that a disproportionate number of our men have rock-hard abs and dazzling white smiles, although they’d notice that men are at least allowed to age visibly, and have identities beyond how attractive they are. They’d probably assume that people of colour are a rare spectacle, and disabled people are far too rare to ever be seen in the outside world. And they wouldn’t have any idea that people outside the gender binary exist at all. Imagine their surprise when they leave that room and encounter us, women especially, in all our glory. After the initial shock, they might be quite confused about why our media chooses to constantly represent a body type that 95 per cent of us don’t have, and leaves the rest of us behind. They might even find it funny, seeing it as such an obvious distortion of reality.

The problem is, we don’t recognise the distortion. Instead of seeing a single body type everywhere we turn as inaccurate, misleading or manipulative, we see our own bodies as the problem. Why aren’t our legs that long and toned? Why is our hair so flat and lifeless? Why does our skin have lines on it? We compare ourselves with those images until we’re left feeling worthless. Those images are nothing like us. They’re not supposed to be. They’re supposed to be aspirational, superhuman enough for us to be in awe of, but with a beauty that we can still believe is achievable. That way, we can be sold the thing that promises to make us just as beautiful. We can buy the miracle diet pill that will give us the figure of our dreams. We can spend our money on the shampoo to get thick, flowing locks. We can splurge on that outfit that we’ve seen advertised on the most flattering (read: thin) bodies, because maybe it’ll make us look like that too! Maybe we can be beautiful too!

In all adverts we’re being sold two things – the ideal image, and the product to get us there. Want one? Buy the other. Female beauty ideals are the best marketing scheme in the world. What better way to make money than to make half the world feel ugly and then sell them the solution? Outside of advertising, the media makes sure we all get the message that the ideal body is the only one worthy of being celebrated, admired, or loved. When was the last time you saw a leading female character get a happy ending without first fitting conventional standards of beauty? You only get a happy ending if you’re beautiful, duh. When was the last time you saw a magazine cover with a red circle of shame drawn around a female celebrity’s ‘flawed’ body parts? Inside, the article suggests that she’s lost control of her entire life because her stomach folds when she bends over. She couldn’t possibly be happy! The next issue shows how she’s fighting to get her body, and her life back (cue eye-roll). We quickly learn that the only way to be beautiful or happy is to spend our lives chasing the ideal body. And it will be a chase, since only 5 per cent of us naturally possess the body type that the media loves so much.

Even those of us who appear to be perfect on the outside carry the same nagging insecurities about not measuring up. When we look in the mirror we don’t see ourselves clearly because we’re looking through a lens of every perfect body we’ve ever seen. Against those images, we are always too fat, too ugly, too dark, too imperfect. One study examining the effects of how seeing ideal female bodies on television impacts our own self-image found that 95 per cent of women overestimated their body sizes after seeing images of women with ideal body weights.

Meaning that when we constantly see images of the ideal thin body, we come away thinking that we’re bigger than we are. What we see every day is shaping how we see ourselves. We can’t see the beauty in everything that we are because we’ve been taught to first see everything that we’re not. All the rules of how we should look take the magic away from how we do look. We do this terrible thing where we look in the mirror or at pictures and we expect to see a thin model. Unless you are a thin model, THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN. The second you start looking for you is the second you will start to appreciate what you are. Things get even more complicated when we realise that the perfect body we’re searching for in the mirror, the body we think we should have, the body we’re killing ourselves for, doesn’t even exist. The ideal isn’t a real woman, one with history that comes to life on her skin, one with a moving, changing body. The ideal is a creation of a Photoshop wand. Nobody looks as perfect as the person on the cover.

Not even the person herself.