A woman walks home at dusk, keys at the ready and eyes peeled for potential assailants. She's exhausted from a long day at work, full of men interrupting her, mansplaining and repeating ideas as though they hadn't left her lips just moments prior. She reflects morosely on how her performance evaluations were peppered with comments about her personality instead of the quality of her work, and she sighs as she realizes she has yet to cook dinner, do laundry and get the kids to bed. At the end of the day, what does she have to show for her trouble?
It's no secret that the United States continues to have a female labour force participation problem, a problem that is equal parts representation and treatment. The end goal, of course, is to have equal quality of treatment: a world in which women are not underpaid, are not continuously condescended to and are not less likely to be hired than men when their qualifications are identical. Representation is merely a proxy for quality of treatment... and we don't even have equal representation. Only 56 per cent of working-age women are in the U.S. workforce, a full 13 percentage points fewer than men. A big part of this problem is culture.
A narrow cultural definition of women's capabilities directly impacts their quality of treatment at work, at home and in life.
Culture says that women ought to be homemakers, look pretty and that they're prizes to be "earned" by men. But culture is learned, and in no small part via popular media. Americans spend on average five hours daily watching TV, for example. At 35 hours per week, Americans spend about as much time in front of the television as they do working -- lots of time for media to cultivate unconscious biases.
For example, shows like Game of Thronesroutinely display topless women, but they carefully shield naked men from the camera. Shows like The Big Bang Theory exploit gender stereotypes as comedic fodder: pretty girls can't be smart, smart girls can't be pretty, and it is entirely acceptable for a working man to relegate all household chores to his (also working) wife. These shows are popular and high-grossing, but they aren't doing women many favours.
Further, some companies have admitted to trying to elicit emotional responses from viewers by using advertisements exploiting stereotypes of women as caregivers and emphasizing features like their youth and attractiveness. This dramatic boost in sales hints at how widely people agree -- consciously or not -- that a woman is valued for her looks and a man is valued for his smarts. This bias hurts women in the workplace, where smarts matter over looks.
Always consume with a critical eye. Gender stereotype in an ad? Racial stereotype in a movie? Keep speaking up.
The bottom line is, there is money to be made from the objectification of women and the exploitation of stereotypes. The result is a narrow cultural definition of women's capabilities, which directly impacts their quality of treatment at work, at home and in life. It is key to understand that achieving equal standing of any kind, even if just representation, for any marginalized demographic is not the sole responsibility of the marginalized demographic. It depends on shifting culturally rooted perspectives, which occurs extremely gradually, and which would be helped if popular media stopped perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
So, what can you do? Always consume with a critical eye. Gender stereotype in an ad? Racial stereotype in a movie? You see it, you tweet it. Keep speaking up -- one day, the media may finally unbox us. #MediaUnboxUs
By Lauren Shum, delegate representing the United States at the 2016 G(irls)20 Summit in Beijing, China.
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