Different genders, different lives

4 Mar 2014

Abstract: This paper provides a snapshot of the ways in which gender bias affects women and men throughout their lives. Although there are inequities for both genders, it is fair to say that women face greater long-term disadvantage than men as a result of the structures and processes that frame work and family life in our society. The paper demonstrates that it is not a single moment of inequality that leads to women’s lifelong disadvantage, particularly in careers, but the cumulative effect of a lifetime’s exposure to gender stereotypes, and their hampering effects on women’s opportunities in education and paid employment.


Gender stereotyping begins at birth, continues from school through to the end of life, and impacts major life events – including starting and developing careers, negotiating for pay and conditions, receiving promotions, getting married, having a family, and in retirement. The process of differentiating women and men based on what they do affects both genders, but is more easily observed in women’s lives.

Gender differences in pay and promotions are evident in most workplaces. Even though research consistently demonstrates that workplace gender equality can help organisations to attract and retain the best employees, reduce the cost of staff turnover and enhance organisational performance, women and men continue to be treated differently in the workplace. Obvious examples are the persistent lack of women in senior management roles, and the equally persistent gender pay gap. Although women comprise around 46% of Australia’s employed population aged 20 to 74 years, they comprise only small numbers of senior executives (9.2% of ASX500 directorships are held by women and just over 2% have a female CEO). Women also continue to earn, on average, 17.1% less than men.

It is sometimes argued that the gender pay gap is caused by women who, although well qualified, consciously choose not to pursue senior management and leadership roles, preferring instead to step aside from their careers to spend more time on caring responsibilities. The gender pay gap is also often attributed to women choosing lower-paid occupations and industries because it is easier to balance work with family. However, it is often the case that women’s so-called ‘choices’ around paid work are heavily constrained by a set of complex, interrelated, and often invisible gender-related factors.

The effect of gender bias over the life course will be explored here through the fictional life stories of two characters – Amelia and William. The narrative around Amelia’s and William’s experiences is related back to known research in the field and brings to life the effect of gender bias on women and men over the life course.

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