Leiden Psychology Blog

Equal Opportunities

Equal Opportunities From Wikipedia: 'We can do it!'

At every step along their academic career development, more women than men fall by the wayside. The situation is not much different in other countries or in the business sector. Why?

Underrepresented in the upper echelons of university employment

Many women complete university degrees. On average, female students in varying academic disciplines get higher marks and complete their degree programmes more quickly than their male counterparts. And yet women are still vastly underrepresented in the upper echelons of university employment.

Is this a choice women make?

Many people believe that everyone today has equal opportunities. There is legislation to safeguard it; if you feel you have been unfairly treated, you can officially object. Given that everyone has equal career opportunities, if women are less successful than men, the reason obviously must lie with the women themselves. They must be less competent or ambitious, or they just make different choices in life. After all, if women themselves opt to follow a different path, there is very little anyone can do about it, people seem to think. But is this true?

Vicious circle

Numerous studies in this area reveal no systematic differences between men and women in relevant competencies (such as mathematics), skills (such as leadership), or ambitions (such as self-confidence). What does emerge clearly, however, is that men and women are systematically treated differently. Research has also shown that even very small differences in how men and women are approached, or in the attitude they adopt, can lead to a vicious circle. If women do not put themselves forward for a higher position, they are perceived as less ambitious and are less likely than men to be invited to take part in career development initiatives. The women in question then do not feel their ambitions endorsed, evaluate their chances of career success as lower, and adjust their ambitions downwards. This reinforces the old stereotype that women are simply less motivated than men to pursue a successful career.

Added benefits of gender diversity

These sorts of patterns arise because we tend to make all sorts of far-reaching assumptions about the competencies, motivations, and ambitions of others, purely on the basis of their sex. Women who are expecting a baby are asked how they plan to combine work and parenthood. Prospective fathers are never even asked about this. The implicit message is that combining a family and a career is evidently a problem for women, but not for men. The added benefits of gender diversity for renewal and innovation in the university and business sector have been documented unequivocally. If people with different perspectives are involved in decision-making processes, better decisions are made and profits are higher. And yet the criteria for assessing performance and career achievements are defined very narrowly. If people do not fit the standard pattern, they will not progress to higher levels.

Implicit biases

Recognizing that implicit biases and gender stereotypes may unwittingly  unconscious stereotypes may play a role can help us to provide opportunities that are truly equal. Asking what people want, rather than making assumptions, can supply important information. Choices are not always freely made. Often they are based in part on our estimation of the opportunities available, and – given current realities and statistics - women may view their possibilities of achieving career success as less favourable. Career development paths that are tailored to one type of person can never offer genuinely equal opportunities.

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