Why we need to stop trying to "fix" women

Author/editor: Michelle Ryan and Thekla Morgenroth
Year published: 2024


While there are many visible examples of individual women who have succeeded in the workplace – women at the helms of their own businesses, running corporations, even leading countries – there's no doubt that women as a group fare less well. The data show gender inequalities at all stages of career trajectories – women are overrepresented in sectors and roles that are lower paid and less valued, they are paid consistently less than their male peers (even when doing the same role), and they are visibly underrepresented in positions of leadership and influence, to name just a few examples. And these inequalities are only exacerbated for those who face intersectional disadvantages, such as those based on race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity, and disability.

To address the persistence of gender inequalities, many workplace gender equality interventions have been designed and implemented by governments, gender equality practitioners, professional bodies, and organizations. In this review article we focus on two classes of initiatives that make up the majority of interventions: (a) those designed to boost motivations and ambition, such as those that aim to attract more women into those professions (such as STEM and politics) and roles (such as leadership) in which they are underrepresented; and (b) those that try to provide women with needed abilities to achieve these positions, such as confidence, assertiveness, and risk-taking, negotiation, and leadership skills.

While these types of initiatives are generally well meaning, they are nonetheless problematic in at least three interrelated ways. First, many of these interventions do not have a clear evidence base, but rather are based upon (and reinforce) stereotypes of what women supposedly "lack". Second, such a deficit model leads to interventions that attempt to “fix” women, and in doing so put the onus for change (and the blame for inequality) on women themselves. Third, such women-focused approaches fail to address the systemic and structural factors that are the root of gender inequalities.

In this review article we provide a critical appraisal of the literature to establish an evidence base for why "fixing" women is unlikely to be a successful approach to achieving gender equality in career trajectories. As an alternative, we focus on understanding how organizational context and culture maintain these inequalities by looking at how they shape and constrain (a) women's motivations and ambitions, and (b) the expression and interpretation of their skills and attributes. In doing so, we seek to shift the focus from women themselves to the systems and structures in which they are embedded.

Updated:  31 January 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications