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June 2012
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Where Have All the Women Gone? The Unwitting Sexism that Surrounds Us (Part 1)

Posted by: Nicky Garcea and Alex Linley, as part of Capp’s Female Leaders Month (June 2012)

 

Alex and I are fascinated by the way our environmental surroundings, social norms and expectations create powerful but unwitting subliminal messages that impact the way we behave. Of particular interest to us is the question of how unspoken cues, images and the typical absence of women’s representation in our built environment shape the subliminal messages that permeate society. From this, we are interested in how these subliminal messages combine to influence young women’s career choices and subsequently their desire to become female leaders in organisations.

 

These are issues that we will explore throughout this week, with this being Part 1 of a 4-part blog series for Capp’s Female Leaders Month.

 

Growing up, I never personally questioned or considered that my career choices should be limited by gender. My parents brought me up in the same way that they brought up my elder brother. I come from a family of working women – my Great Grandmother, Grandma and Mum all worked. Until I was 18, I had only ever known a female Prime Minister, and of course, to me as I grew up, that was nothing unusual.

 

It wasn’t until I landed my first consulting role that I heard the phrase, “No woman has ever returned to work after having a child and made it as a consultant.” Somewhat surprisingly, the limit of my gender and youth was first bought home to me by a woman. I was 26 and a guest speaker at a Women in Leadership Network event. When I arrived to deliver my presentation, dressed in a white shirt and black suit, having gone to introduce myself to the organiser, I was greeted with the words, “Not now, darling, can you clear the plates please, we are waiting for our speaker to arrive.”

 

From those days onwards, it has become a hobby for us to note what cues exist in the world around us, that are small ‘tells’ to women that this is not a place for them, as women, to be successful and to lead. My favourite example recently was the market researcher who, after establishing the occupation of the main breadwinner in the house (i.e., myself, a company director), went on to ask, “And how many staff does Mr Garcea have working for him?”

 

My second favourite is the car salesman who once tried to sell me a car by demonstrating all the places where I could store my make-up bag. He had failed to establish the fact I drove 20,000 miles a year, so storing my make-up was not a priority for me, whereas fuel economy and a comfortable driving position were!

 

With these subliminal messages all around us, we turn our attention tomorrow to some of the wider social and environmental cues that also send the message to women that ‘this isn’t for you’ – despite the fact that – we suspect – this was never for a moment the intention of the people making the decisions!

 

Such, for better or worse, is the power of subliminal messaging.

 

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