Gen Z and Closing the Gender Gap: 5 Steps We Can All Take

When my older stepdaughter was 12, my husband and I ran into a summer camp crisis.  Due to a last minute change in work schedules we had no camp, and therefore no childcare, booked for a week when we needed it.  My husband and I searched high and low for an available and interesting camp with little success.  Then I remembered the Museum of Science summer courses. We were late and as such our options were limited – there was only one spot left in an age-appropriate course. “We’ll take it!” I said. And that is how my stepdaughter embarked upon her involuntarily adventure of building a miniature Smart Car using Arduino Programming in a course taught by MIT students.

The evening after the first day of camp was rough.  “There are 18 boys and only 1 other girl! Why did you sign me up for this?” she complained, clearly unhappy that we had forced this male-dominated week-long activity on her.  My husband and I cringed, fearing this camp could potentially tur
n her off to other STEM activities completely.  But eventually her love of learning took over and after the second day, when her car started moving, she was hooked.  She completed the course and built a self-driving car that she was proud to show off and excited to explain in a formal presentation to the parents at the end of the week.  We couldn’t have been more proud.  Not only because she had built the car and learned some programming, but because in a room filled with adolescent boys she was breaking down gender barriers.

This month on March 8th we celebrated International Women’s Day. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says “Let us devote solid funding, courageous advocacy and unbending political will to achieving gender equality around the world.  There is no greater investment in our common future.”

And we have made progress as a society; the world Gen Z is inheriting has made great strides in terms of gender equality.  In his recent book “We Are Generation Z”, teen author Vivek Pandit talks about how Gen Z expects to encounter male nurses as often as they do female doctors.  He goes on to explain that “In my home, I grew up thinking that dads do the laundry because I grew up in a household with two working parents where chores were split up according to ‘who was good at it’ rather than ‘who should do it’”.

And yet the gender gap still exists.

The pay disparity between men and women may be shrinking with the younger generations, but it is still a fact of life with the gap being wider the higher up the career ladder that women go.  And according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, at the current rate, women will not see equal pay in the US until 2059 when the oldest Gen Z-ers are turning 61 years old.

Additionally, as the STEM fields have grown, the gender gap has been widening despite multi-million dollar efforts to engage more women in this male dominated field.  And a recent study based on data from over 1.4 million GitHub users concluded that when genders were not revealed, women’s code was accepted at a higher rate than men’s.  However, once gender was identified the results completely reversed indicating that the gender bias is real.  And it’s no different in corporate boardrooms.  Less than 15% of the top leadership positions are held by women, and out of the top 500 companies there are only 24 women CEOs.   Additionally, women make up less than 20% of US company board seats.

Gender disparity exists, and as both a professional woman and a stepmother to two Gen Z girls, I hope we can create a better future for our children.  In addition, marketers must remember that their stakeholders are often keenly aware of gender issues, and without a heightened sensitivity their organization will seem clueless…..or worse.  Apart from tackling policy at the highest levels, how can marketers – and concerned citizens – make a difference?  My observations have lead me to the conclusion that there are 5 steps we can all take.

1. Pay attention to the subtle forms of gender discrimination that surround us. Collective awareness is the first step towards positive change.  I was stunned to notice the way gender is represented in something we use everyday…..emojis.  A detective, policeman and athletes for the male figures; a princess, bride and….Playboy Bunnies (??) for the female figures.  As Rachel Simmons, co-founder of the national nonprofit Girls Leadership says, “as soon as you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it”.

2. Be careful about reinforcing gender stereotypes. Even those who mean well can misstep if they don’t consciously stop and think about the larger context.  One such example would be IBM’s attempt to promote STEM careers through their #hackahairdryer campaign.   While presumably well-intentioned, it missed the mark and was not well-received by woman in science who found it patronizing.  Another example would be the #PrettyCurious contest by EDF Energy which aspired to attract more girls into science but was criticized for using the word ‘pretty’ and hence seen as reinforcing the message that external appearance is what matters for girls.  EDF also did themselves no favors when they selected a 13-year old Gen Z boy as the contest winner.  While one could argue the pros and cons of a gender neutral contest designed to engage girls in STEM, it’s important to carefully think through the potential implications of such a decision.  And while Barbie has come a long way, I particularly love the “imagine the possibilities” Barbie ad, she may want to re-look at some of her wardrobe choices.  For example, in what lab do women scientists wear miniskirts and stiletto heels?   That can’t be good for safety…..

3. When need be, find ways to have fun while making a point. When I first read about Tim Hunt, the Nobel Prize-winning British Scientist, who offended women scientists worldwide by saying that the ‘trouble with girls’ in the lab is that three things happen: ‘you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry’ I admit I was outraged.  In fairness, as I read the additional context around his comments and heard clips from the actual speech I came to consider that perhaps he (misguidedly) thought he was genuinely being funny and isn’t the villain social media made him out to be.  Either way, women scientists around the globe made their point through the use of #DistractinglySexy – and made us smile in the process.  The flurry of tweets showcased the hard-work and brilliant contributions of women in STEM (all made while neither falling in love nor crying on the job – incredible).  Similarly, #Ilooklikeanengineer, which was trending last August made a point while making us laugh.

4. Look for opportunities to be gender inclusive wherever possible. One of my favorite product examples of this is Kinderlab Robotics, a Boston-based start-up that has developed a toy to teach children ages 4-7 how to code.  KIBO, their quirky yet cheery looking robot, could just as easily have been a construction truck or other more typical boy oriented form.  Instead the founders made the decision to design a toy that would neither reinforce the male-STEM stereotype, nor go the alternative path that companies such as GoldieBlox have chosen and develop a very female-targeted product.  They consciously developed a gender-neutral product that will appeal to the broadest base of children and open the world of coding to all who use it.

5. Listen to the messages from organizations working to promote gender equality within Gen Z. Being open to what they have to say has made me personally aware of some of the root causes of the gender disparity.  One great example of an organization working for gender equality in Gen Z is Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit that seeks to close the gender gap in technology and engineering.  The founder, Reshma Saujani, gave a particularly inspiring and informative Ted Talk earlier this month talking about how we need to teach our girls bravery, not perfection.  Another great organization is Strong Women Strong Girls, a mentoring program that pairs girls in underprivileged communities with college women who can encourage them to forge a path to a brighter future.   The organization has over 10 years of proven results.  When Executive Director Siiri Moorley explained that data shows girl’s self-esteem peaks in the 4th grade at 9 years old I was shocked, and yet as I learned more the reasons behind this societal problem became clearer.  We need to understand the issues before we can change them.

In summary, as my favorite Gen Z teen author Vivek Pandit so eloquently told me, ‘the obvious forms of gender inequality have disappeared but that does not mean the problem itself fails to exist.  Gender discrimination may be less noticeable, however discreet forms of inequality are still present in our society and an issue that must be recognized.  In order for America to live by its promise of equal opportunity, gender bias must be an issue we continue to fight.”  Thank you Vivek – I couldn’t have said it better myself.