Gender roles in transition

Are boys suffering unduly from a “feminised” school system and from women forging ahead in the workplace? It is clear from statistics that girls’ grades are increasing and that women now make up the majority of university graduates. Why is this? It’s not a simple thing. A lot has been said about changes in the education system and the supposedly different ways girls and boys learn, but surely expectations make a huge difference too.

Girls are under a lot of pressure to do well. Research on those starting secondary schools shows that emotional pressure on girls has shot up in the last five years. Much of this relates to academic performance. Many are only too aware of the potential problems they might face in the workplace – pay inequality, discrimination and so on. They know that to get ahead they need to outperform their male counterparts. They have absorbed year on year the impact that an unequal workplace has had on their own mothers. Maybe their mothers have succeeded despite this, maybe they have opted out, but you don’t have to look far to see that things are still by no means equal.

A few months ago the blog Pregnant and Screwed launched. It allows the many women – and there are many – who have faced discrimination in the workplace because of having children to tell their stories, anonymously if necessary because the sad thing is that women are often too afraid to speak out or have signed agreements not to.

Last week a report came out stating that almost half of female students were worried about how they would manage work and family life. When I came out of university having children was the last thing on my mind. The impact on my work life only hit me after my daughter was born and even then it took years to absorb the full meaning of what had happened. In fact, I’m still not sure I have. It would be interesting to see how much those graduates’ concerns are affecting the careers they choose to go into. However, what they show is that young women are only too aware of the issues in ways my generation never were.

It is not surprising that young women feel conflicted. They want to do well, to open up their choices, but they are concerned about a looming wall of potential discrimination and career changes.

Boys, on the other hand, are a bit lost. They don’t face the same pressures to do well, but they also want a change in their role. Survey after survey shows they want to be more involved with their children. Yet men feel they face financial and peer pressure not to reduce their hours – or in fact to increase them if their partner goes part time. There is a sense of security in the idea of fixed roles of breadwinner and carer, but these roles are being rejected by many men and women, although there are lingering expectations associated with them which can cause tensions. We are in a period of transition, a transition which affects men as much as women.

The number of women working after having children has risen considerably in the last decade. This is sometimes out of financial necessity, sometimes because women want to have a public role or want to earn their own money. Often it is a combination of the two. The impact is being discussed widely by women, but not so widely – at least not openly – by men. Everything is directed at women. Do women have to open up the debate – and how – or do men have to join it or create their own? And what role should employers play in enabling that debate because, ultimately, they are at the centre of it?

*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of

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