Still Talking Waves


The discussion around gender inequality and gender diversity in the workplace has been all over the news lately. Again. As one sign at a recent rally said ‘I can’t believe I am still having to protest this s**t’. Feminism has moved on and on. From the turn of the century fight for property rights and women’s suffrage, to the 1950s/60s movement where the availability of birth control and abortion opened up choices and freedom for women, and on to the ‘girl power’ of the 90s and noughties, the waves just keep on coming. So the news reports right now shouting that gender inequalities are an issue in nearly every profession, is not exactly new ‘news’

It is important at this stage however, to recognise the difference between gender inequality and gender diversity. Important because there will be different solutions to each. Gender inequality in the workplace: in nearly every profession there are statistically more males in senior roles than women. Think of it this way. In a successful sales company there are 50 senior sales executives – they are all male. Each of these execs has a secretary, so 50 secretaries – they are all female. Perfect diversity – 50/50. However clearly not gender equality.

Conversely there is an issue with achieving gender diversity in the workplace. In some academic fields, in particular in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), and in many industries, women are simply under represented at every level. There could be 80 men to every 20 women. To borrow a comedian’s favourite stock phrase – what’s that about?

These issues are of course extremely complex, as we consider why is it so prevalent. Much of it is a relic of past times. This is just how it has always been, and change is slow to happen. Possibly it could still be something that we, as a society set our girls (and boys) up for. The books that they read, films that they watch, and digital media they consume, may simply model a societal structure that then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


If so, where is that sweet spot where the prophecy could be countered? That moment in the formative years of boys and girls when they first really start to accept that their roles in society differ? How much of it could be addressed earlier if only we knew exactly where that sweet spot is?

Turns out there is, of course, an abundance of research into this type of issue. From statistics around female characters in movies, through to subject choices within the education system. And an awful lot of that research points towards what we already know to be those vitally important formative years of middle school.

So first, let’s look at some of the influences that have already affected our kids by this age. A study carried about by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM) looked at the gender imbalances in G rated films between 1990 and 2005. The tweenagers of those years are the workers of today. In a study of 100 of the top films in this period, results showed that fewer than one out of three (28%) of speaking characters, real or animated, were female.

More often than not, those female characters fell into traditional categories – for example the damsel in distress, the side-kick, or the love interest. Even when they were a lead character, their goals were simple and short term. They weren’t there to save the world, heal the sick or change the course of history. They were there to find love, marriage, freedom.

A group of millennials were recently questioned as to whether they could recall having any strong female role models in films or books when they were growing up. After much thought, they came up with Hermione from the Harry Potter series as she was the smart, bossy one. Fair enough but…. when you really look at it, there are five main characters in that series – the three kids, the headmaster and the bad guy. That makes one out of the five a female role. No new statistics there then.

In literature it seems fairly obvious that gender bias in children’s books will have a strong effect on the way kids see the world. In fact, research has shown that the underrepresentation of female characters here, has the effect of encouraging both genders to see girls as less worthy than boys. This is often reinforced by the language used both around young children, and towards them. That innocent comment from Great Aunty Rose when she meets your kids – ‘well, aren’t you just beautiful’ to the girl, and ‘my, you can run fast’ to the boy. This stuff matters.

Anecdotally, this under representation does seems to be changing in more modern youth literature and film with series such as The Hunger Games choosing – no doubt deliberately – to focus on a strong female lead.

A lot of this research addresses the issue of gender inequality as well as diversity. We can see how these representations when seen by a child in their formative years, could go on to show themselves in the values and self confidence of women in the workplace. Perhaps it helps to explain some of the reasons why we often fail to rise to more senior roles in our professions. Why we are less likely to ask for more money, or to negotiate a better contract. Although no doubt there are also old-school institutional problems playing a bigger part in many industries.

To look at the lack of gender diversity in certain fields, although the same period of their lives seems to be the most likely influencer, it can be for quite different reasons. As we recall, it is around this age that girls (and boys) start to become more body aware. And the modern world of advertising, social media and celebrity can put a harsh focus on this awareness. That focus serves to distort images into unrealistic portrayals of perfection, increasing that body awareness, to unattainable heights.

Perhaps this type of hyper awareness is one of the contributing factors to girls dropping out of, or losing interest in STEM subjects at this age. How they compare in images becomes more important than how they compare in grades.

There may also be a slight educational bias inherent in the school system. These subjects are simply seen as traditionally ‘boys’ subjects.


So it seems likely that one of the key underlying causes of both gender inequality and a lack of gender diversity, could be tracked back to these formative years of between about 11 and 13 years of age. Thus the catalyst for individual change could be seeded in these psychologically important middle school years.

This sweet spot we have been looking for is just one of the many, many threads that make up institutionalised inequality. Feminism addresses such deeply rooted opinions and society models, that the best we can do is pick away at it thread after thread until we get to the truth.

Trying to do just that here in New Zealand, is a wonderful initiative that addresses potential reasons for some of this distraction from academia. And it is aimed at this sweet spot.

Pretty Smart is a presentation put together by writer and entrepreneur Angela Barnett. After many years in the PR and advertising world, Angela, along with her husband and two small children, found themselves living in the middle of the Californian forest running a camp for disadvantaged teenage children. Angela was involved enough with these teenagers to recognise their issues, but she was unable to help as much as she would like as she was at home looking after her own toddlers for much of her time.

She could see however, that just as when she was a teenager, the girls in the forest were constantly competing with each other about how they looked. The boys were competing about what they could physically achieve.

That’s when she thought – what if I could pull together some examples of how artificial the images the girls saw online actually were? Show them that they were all competing with each other over a myth. What if the energy of those girls went into achieving actual accomplishments rather than competing over how they looked?


To give you and idea of how this presentation works, below is the introduction to her web page:

10,000 girls ask Google every month if they’re pretty enough and Google is not kind with its answers.

Something happens to many teen girls around twelve years of age: they lose their confidence. They start worrying about how they look more than how they’re doing in math. And there are higher rates of depression, anxiety, cutting and poor body image than ever before.

And while we can’t blame this all on advertising, messages seen online, at home, and in the mall, reinforce the notion that as a female, being pretty is the most important thing to be. “Media is the only business industry when we can literally paint a picture of the world the way we want it to be,” says Madeline Di Nonno, chief executive of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. “One 30-second spot can make a lifetime impression.”

While we can’t change what we see in the media, we can change our knowledge around it. Angela Barnett gives talks to teens about how to be pretty smart about what they see.

Raising warriors not worriers.

Her presentation shows a range of images in a type of ‘before and after the retouch’ series. And in this technological world, the retouch doesn’t just apply to magazine covers. It also applies to Instagram, and all socially shared pictures.

She then leads in to a discussion about how beauty is recognisable in traits other than physical appearance. Strength can be beautiful, kindness can be beautiful, musical talent can be beautiful. We need to show our girls that they should broaden their definition of beautiful.

After all, what is the point of criticising someone about a physical attribute that they are unable to change? It’s like criticising a cat for being a tabby. They can’t change that, any more than a tall girl can stop being tall, or a short girl can grow taller. How ridiculous is it to make a critical judgement on that? This is the issue – the judgement. We need to be teaching our kids not to just thoughtlessly judge. As Carl Jung said – “Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge”.

This kind of presentation and discussion is a way of arming our girls. Arming them with the ability to apply critical thinking to everything that they see and hear. In terms of the language used, the passive versus active adjectives applied to each gender, the unbalanced representation of women in ads and entertainment.


Change is happening, at a glacial pace, but happening nonetheless. However perhaps it is more important is that young girls are aware of gender imbalance in media, whether it changes or not. Knowledge is power here. Potentially just as powerful as change – although let’s not forget the two are certainly not mutually exclusive!

But armed with such knowledge they could become the generation that have more confidence in themselves. That don’t give up on academia or a chosen career path. That know the value of their own opinions and strength.

Knowledge and awareness can allow these girls to call out those responsible. They will be that fourth wave of feminism that is necessary to make change absolute. Knowledge is what arms them to dismiss the images of unachievable perfection they see in the media. It arms them to empower each other and encourage rather than judge. So let’s hit that sweet spot and watch our girls fly.