“Women hold up half the sky.” – Mao Zedong

Enhancing women’s economic empowerment is crucial to achieving gender equality, but pervasive gender stereotypes, societal norms, and discrimination continue to keep women from thriving in the workforce. In recent years, there have been greater calls for gender equality and more vocal conversations around the critical need to close the gender wage gap. Although some strides have been made in this regard, there’s still a fundamental lack of women in leadership roles and if current rates of closing the wage gap continue, according to the World Economic Forum we won’t see parity for 132 years .

So, how do we tackle these gender stereotypes that are so ingrained in our society? Further, what can we as individuals do to challenge our own biases? And, what can Organisations do to get beyond policies that talk the talk, but do not translate into walking any kind of walk. 

To get a better understanding of this topic, I spoke with Marcia Lawrence. Marcia is a Human Resources professional based in Perth, Australia. She is a mother of two kids, is partner to a very supportive husband, and an avid foodie with a black belt in martial arts. Marcia is a wealth of knowledge and has had an adventurous career with a full gamut of experiences to share. 

At the age of just 21, Marcia moved to China to take up a management traineeship at a five-star hotel and ended up staying for another seven years. That experience in China taught Marcia a lot about the role that gender stereotypes play in how we live our lives, and ultimately, how that shapes our careers. More recently, Marcia completed her Master’s in HR, 60% of which was completed during parental leave taken after the arrival of her second child.

Let’s dive in. 

Women Hold Up Half the Sky

“Women hold up half the sky,” is a powerful proclamation made by Mao Zedong. Essentially, supporting the idea that to be able to succeed as a society, women needed to contribute to the workforce in a meaningful way.

Gender Stereotypes, Honesty, and Transparency 

“If we look at Australia, women are participating in the workforce at extremely high levels. But the two cultures (China and Australia) are very different in terms of when we actually received those rights, but also, how society and culture is structured in those two different countries,” Marcia shares of her experience. 

Since coming back from China, Marcia has continued her career here in Australia and while her experience in the workforce is still somewhat similar, there are key differences. For one, Marcia says that of her experience in China, “It’s allowed me to question those gender roles; so much so that it’s made a very big difference on the decisions I’ve made in my life.”

Marcia gets candid and opens up about being a divorcee and how it affected her career. “I actually am divorced. And one of the reasons was gender stereotypes actually really played into that. I do remember at that stage, I was the primary breadwinner for quite a period of time. And my son’s father was a stay at home parent, but because of gender stereotypes was not comfortable engaging with our son in activities because dads at that stage didn’t do that.” Marcia shares, “But being a stay at home parent at the time, the gender stereotypes actually reinforced that, that men shouldn’t be doing these things, because you don't see other men doing these things. And it made it really hard.”

This was difficult for Marcia, but this experience also  got Marcia to really reflect on and re-think how she wanted to live her life. This ignited her to make fundamental changes in her life, and the changes that has led to now is that she had another child three years ago, at the age of 40. 

But, she hasn’t allowed that to slow down her career – Marcia got 60% of her Master’s done during that time, and she really invested in herself. She told herself, “I’m not going to let this career break impact me negatively; I’m actually going to see this as an opportunity, not only to invest in being a parent and, and my child’s needs, but also invest in myself.”

In a way, Marcia says that her experiences in China has led her to question those stereotypes and say, “No, that’s not for me.”

Currently, her husband is studying full time and he’s decided that he’s going to change the direction of his career. Marcia is happy to support her husband in doing that whilst currently being the family ‘breadwinner’, and expresses that in order to remain doing what is true for them they have to consistently challenge gender stereotypes and push past what society expects, and instead do what is right for them.

What Organisations Can Do 

I had this question of Marcia. “What should organisations be doing more of or less of to support women; but also, how can they support men more to support women, and  to ultimately support society better?” 

In answer to this question, Marcia says that, “There’s a lot of work that organisations are doing right now. But, the baseline is going back through and actually looking at all your policies, practices, structure, and processes. How do these support or potentially reinforce those gender stereotypes? So, simple things like changing your terminology from maternity leave, to parental leave, little things like that.”  Marcia also acknowledged that organisational culture plays a huge part in the success or failure of these policies and that absolutely needs to be honestly reviewed by leaders. Having policies in place is great, but if in reality people don’t feel empowered to use them, then nothing will ever change. 

The Bottom Line

To make changes; to bridge the gap that still exists, we need to challenge our biases and the way we think about the roles of males and females generally. Only then, will we be able to pave the way for everyone in a working context to lead the careers and lives that are the best for them, and, in turn, organisations will thrive because their people are thriving. 

You can listen to my full conversation with Marcia Lawrence here.