Gender roles – society still needs a shake-up!

Posted on: 09 Feb 2018

Suzie Longstaff, headmistress at Putney High School, questions whether there needs to be a more fundamental gear shift in the cultures that the talented young women at her school will encounter once they arrive in their chosen area of work.

The fact that the 37-year-old president of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, will give birth while in office recently made headline news around the world, but as we celebrate the enormous advances in gender equality of the last 100 years, it seems society’s perceptions still have a long way to go. As she herself acknowledged via Twitter, “We’ll be joining the many parents out there who wear two hats. I’ll be Prime Minister AND a mum and Clarke will be [a] stay at home dad.” In my experience, it is increasingly normal for men to stay at home, and as a headmistress and mother of twin five-year olds, this is also my model.

There is no doubt that the culture of the “stay at home mother” is seriously under review, after all, combining a career and young children presents challenges for any parent, whatever their gender. Amusingly, in a recent article, the Head of the Girls’ School Association proclaimed that the key to a successful career was to, “find yourself a house-husband”, but in an age when girls are excelling at school (regularly achieving better results than their male peers) why does it still seem odd when a woman is the main wage-earner? It’s one thing to get the grades and to have the talent and ambition, but how much do the present realities in the workplace help families to achieve the equality they seek. Are society’s perceptions still so entrenched that we need a more radical shake-up?

Unlike the Swedish model of working, the UK is not known to have the world’s most helpful attitudes to parental leave. In Sweden, flexible working hours and job shares contribute to 80% of mothers going back to work, and fathers have had the right to paid parental time off since the 1970s. As calls for equality in the workplace gather pace, these wider issues will quickly need to be addressed.

The recent furore surrounding the BBC equal pay row and Hollywood’s even more attention-grabbing, #TimesUp campaign, have thrown a spotlight on to issues of equality in every area of the workplace. Did you know that a mere 9% of cinematographers are female? A Putney alumna referred to the “Celluloid Ceiling” in a recent talk about her filmmaking career. It seems that ceilings exist in a multitude of professions, but I strongly believe that whether they’re “glass” or “celluloid” – these “ceilings” are artificial structures, and as such they are made to be broken!

In my last blog I wrote about how Engineering, Science and Technology sectors are crying out for applications from women, and every day there are calls for more women in leadership roles. At Putney High School GDST, encouraging girls to study STEM subjects, and teaching the leadership skills they will need in the future, are fundamental to our ethos. But does there need to be a more fundamental gear shift in the cultures these talented young women will encounter once they arrive in their chosen area of work?

These prominent campaigns have shown us that sexism is still rife within many industries, and when everything from maternity leave allowance to the timing of meetings, provide obstacles to families with young children, how can we hope to find a balance? From pay, to equality, to level of ambition, there is no doubt that a revolution is under way, but we must make sure that it goes further than “hashtag hysteria”. Society must construct a new “normal” and consider fundamentally how it values and enables both men and women, whatever their “roles” and ambitions may be.

I hope that New Zealand’s new Prime Minister will make the most of the six weeks of leave she plans to take after the birth of her baby; as her predecessor, Helen Clark quite rightly said, “Every woman should have the choice of combining family and career”. If it is still acceptable to say “I want to be a house-husband, or a mother, or a head of industry, or all three!”, then let’s make sure we applaud that, and equip all our young people with the skills, the voice and above all the opportunity to succeed.

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About Suzie Longstaff

Suzie Longstaff is Headmistress at Putney High School, a girls' school in South West London.