The girl effect, or why being smart just isn't enough

The highly-publicised gender pay gap matters for reasons of equity and fairness, but also because women are disproportionately disadvantaged as a consequence.  Research and Policy Specialist Susan Maury, from Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, unpacks some of the reasons for gendered disparities as well as some actions that can be taken to mitigate them. 


Gendered disadvantage across the lifespan

Research indicates that girls tend to excel academically in all areas and have higher rates of university enrolment than boys.  The research is unequivocal: girls out-perform boys in the classroom in all subjects.  This is verified with global studies across 30 countries and has been true for the past 100 years.  Additionally, recent studies have dismissed the popular misconception that girls are unequal to boys in their math capabilities, a robust finding with global data. In Australia, 55.6% of university enrolments were female in 2014.

However, despite these capabilities, Good Shepherd knows that women and girls experience disproportionate economic disadvantage over their lifetime.  For example, the Australian gender pay gap is well documented at 18.8% - that is, women are paid significantly less than men for equal work.  This gap is influenced by a variety of factors, such as carer’s responsibilities and pay scales in preferred fields, however it is already present upon graduation from university, at 9.1%.  Some suggest that the gap is due to women working in lower-paid professions (although it is questionable why such professions as teaching, social work, or nursing – often requiring advanced degrees – are not held in higher regard). However, in higher-paid professions the pay gap is actually worse: for professional, scientific, banking and technical services industries the pay gap is at 30.1%. The pay gap also widens as women progress in their careers; in Australia, women managers in full-time employment earn 27% less than their male counterparts.

Lack of economic security has profound consequences for women in Australia, including making it difficult to leave violent relationships and reducing financial security into retirement, with a superannuation gap of 47%.  This results in 29% of Australian women over the age of 65 living in poverty, with a startling increase in homelessness for older women.  The consequences are clearly detrimental to society at large.

Key points of leverage for change

We know that it is not a lack of skill or ability that is leading to this undervaluing of women’s contributions in the workplace; the reasons behind these trends are quite complex.  But there are actions that can be taken that will help mitigate these dismal outcomes.  For example, research indicates:

Gender stereotyping has a very real and profound negative effect on performance. Because it is directly measureable, maths performance is a handy indicator of this phenomenon; see for example research reports here,  herehere and here.  On the upside, girls’ increasing ambition has also been credited with creating the grade gap between girls and boys.

Reducing gender stereotypes removes very real barriers to women and girls.  This needs to begin at home, where effects of both beliefs and actions held by parents concerning housework (it matters!) directly correlate to girls aspiring to less traditional, higher paying jobs for themselves. Both social and cultural norms and the beliefs and example of the mother explain differences across countries in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores for girls.  At a societal level, learned cultural norms and patriarchal societies reduce competitiveness in girls as they age, putting them at a disadvantage for leadership positions. This includes an acknowledgement of gender-appropriate behaviours and career pathways, where deviating from the norm results in social correction.  This starts in childhood but is engrained in society; for example, a company’s stock is likely to fall when a female CEO is appointed (due to beliefs about women’s leadership capabilities), although it recovers in the longer term (as the leader ‘proves’ herself).  When gender stereotyping is activated in political campaigns, women candidates lose votes.

In this context, the question of how to engage men and boys in order to increase gender equity is an important conversation.  Simple approaches, however, will have limited effect. There are clear linkages between gender stereotypingobjectification of women, and constraining male behaviour.  It has also been proposed that ‘manhood’ is a concept that needs constant social reinforcement, which further leads to maladaptive behaviours.  Amongst other things, there is a need for clarifying misperceptions about what the norms actually are amongst men, and also altering what is considered acceptable behaviour. What is required is resetting the norms around relationships between males and females, creating a healthier, freeing environment for everyone.

Role models of empowered women are also critical.  In a fascinating longitudinal study in India, villages which reserved leadership positions for women showed a marked increase in aspirations by girls and their parents, a reduction of time spent in household chores by girls, and an elimination of the gendered education gap.  Role models also increase self-efficacy for girls and a sense of belonging in traditionally male-dominated fields.  However, even in the absence of female role models, women are more likely to enter a career pathway if they feel welcomed.

Employment models are arguably outdated.  There are many barriers to women’s workforce participation in Australia today, but the primary barrier appears to be juggling child care with employment expectations.  Current models are organised around the assumption that a breadwinner (traditionally a man) is freed up to work over-long hours by a spouse/partner who cares for the home and children (traditionally a woman).  While in this traditional structure the carer may work, external paid employment must fit in around the primary duties to children and the home.  In response, there is increasing focus on workplace flexibility - a major emerging trend in global working norms.  Flexible work opportunities now outrank remuneration, career advancement and corporate culture as the key deciding factor for senior staff when job-seeking – for both males and females.  Within Australia, the right to request flexible work arrangements is protected for certain employees, including parents and women experiencing domestic violence; this is a good start, but is a far cry from normalising more flexible arrangements. Traditional employment models are also constraining to men who are looking for healthier relationships and work-life balance, including in Australia. However, it is mothers who most often sacrifice career status and higher pay for more flexible arrangements.   More flexible work arrangements are something that can be driven by employers, which is a positive change for everyone.

Policy and institutional responses

There are many ways that policy can support a meaningful change.  First, it must be recognised that carers require better financial support.  The superannuation gap must be addressed.  Access to affordable, quality childcare assists women back into the workforce.  Parental leave ought to be available to parents regardless of gender – as in Sweden.  Banks and other institutions should actively screen for economic abuse, and collect data which allows them to analyse the unique financial requirements of women.

Government and larger institutional responses as employers can further effect cultural change.  At the moment there are some exciting initiatives underway. The example of the Canadian government’s gender-balanced cabinet is one that ought to be mirrored here in Australia; EMILY’s List is leading the way in this area.  The recently-launched SAGE initiative to increase female participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields is another important contributor.  And the Equilibrium Challenge is encouraging gender-neutral workplace flexibility.  However, there’s still much to do – and meaningful actions must permeate our culture, including not only institutional or policy responses, but also everyday interactions with one another.  Achieving gender equity is not only good for women, it’s also good for men, for children, and for our society as a whole.


Follow on Twitter @GoodAdvocacy or at @SusanMaury