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"Gender equality issues begin with our expectations"


Nanna Gillberg och en skulptur av Evert Taube
Nanna Gillberg and the Swedish artist Evert Taube. Gothenburg has more statues of Evert Taube than statues of named women. Photo: Carina Gran

It starts early. We speak differently to girls and boys, give them different amounts of latitude and judge their performance differently. This shapes our expectations both of others and of ourselves, leading to differences in areas such as salary and career progression.

Nanna Gillberg conducts research on gender issues, with a particular focus on the informal mechanisms behind inequality, including what she calls expectation structures.

“Pay differences between men and women can partially be explained by expectation structures. If you are a manager going into a pay review, it is more difficult to say no to someone who you assume has high expectations in terms of salary than someone who only has modest hopes. There was a study conducted in the Swedish banking world, where new employees were interviewed. The men had high expectations of rising up the career ladder, while the women only expressed hopes. The expectations of employees, and expectations of their expectations from managers, affect the pace of career progression,” says Nanna Gillberg.

“I have never noticed gender making any difference”

Last year, Nanna Gillberg published her book “Jag har aldrig märkt att kön har haft någon betydelse” (I have never noticed gender making any difference). The title comes from a frequent comment among high achievers in business. In the book, Nanna gives examples of underlying structures that are so obvious they have been rendered invisible.

“Many people perceive their lives to be equal, and some feel the whole issue is irrelevant. But research shows that we often find it difficult to spot structures associated with gender because they are so ‘taken for granted’. In an American study, the two fictitious characters Jennifer and John both applied for a job as a laboratory manager. Apart from the names, the applications looked exactly the same. Nevertheless, 127 venerable professors judged that John was more competent and deserved both a higher salary and more mentoring than Jennifer,” relates Nanna Gillberg.

186 years away from gender equality

Although we have made a great deal of progress on gender equality, there is still a long way to go. There are calculations indicating that at the current rate, it will take 186 years for us to reach full gender equality in Sweden.

“The most rapid advances are being made where there is a regulatory framework covering areas such as board representation or wage negotiations. If you look at things like the distribution of unpaid work in the home or who takes leave to care for a sick child, then progress is considerably slower,” says Nanna Gillberg.

We also can’t rely on young people to lead the way. A study conducted in the USA, and repeated in Norway, got students to read a report on a successful entrepreneur. The narrative was the same, but in one half of the cases it was about ‘Heidi’ and in the other half it was about ‘Howard’.

“While Heidi was seen as unsympathetic and selfish – not someone you would want to employ, have as a manager or grab a beer with after work – Howard was considered to be a great guy. And this wasn’t older people, but a new generation of business school students. So everyone has to keep reminding themselves about underlying expectations. Including me,” says Nanna Gillberg.

This is an article from the School's Magazine 2019.