By Robin Silver 

While feminism may have opened up the world to women in many ways, this freedom has not replaced society’s expectations of what a woman should be. Instead, they have piled on top of them. 

The idea of women “having it all” was popularised by the publication of Helen Gurley Brown’s book of the same title in 1982, and almost 40 years later this fallacy is starting to die out.

Having it all means simultaneously juggling the stable yet fiery relationship with her spouse, the high-powered career, the perfectly appointed home, the perfect body, and a close and nurturing relationship with her children (because even the most high-powered women still must be mothers if they are going to fulfil everything that womanhood promises)—all without breaking a sweat. According to a survey taken by Glamour Magazine, 10% of respondents who belong to Gen X (born 1965-1981) believe that feminism means “having it all” while exactly none of Gen Z (born 1995-2015) agree.

Even in the 21st century, the expectations of what women should achieve in their daily lives requires constant motion for every 1440 minutes we get in a day, while still getting a proper night’s sleep (to prevent early signs of ageing or irritability, which are both very unbecoming). Let’s break down some of the expectations that women are still contending with. 

Boss Babe—But Not Too Bossy

Since 2015, there has been a record-high in the number of women holding the highest office in their respective countries, at the time of writing there are a total of 22 prime ministers, presidents, and chancellors who also happen to be women. This accounts for roughly 10% of all countries, so while women have made undeniable progress in the political sphere, we are still a long way away from equal representation.

Part of this may have to do with how women are shamed when perceived to be seeking power, a trait traditionally thought of as masculine. Feminine aims are, in contrast, supposed to be more community-minded, and seeking out leadership is still not compatible with that in the minds of many. A study by Harvard University proved that feelings of disgust and contempt were often reactions to women who were described as power-seeking, while men described the same way were not penalised similarly by the study’s participants. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the study’s findings was that this was true regardless of the gender of the respondent.

Coverage of women seeking political office is similarly stymied. As Dustin Harp succinctly puts it in an article for Ms. magazine, the “trifecta of family, fashion, and food” is frequently invoked when reporters cover women in politics, and rarely when referring to men in politics. If men’s family or style of dress is referenced, it is never the first thing mentioned, while for women, it almost always is. Even before their political positions or qualifications, we must remember that these politicians, first and foremost are women, and thus deserving of our judgement in all areas of life—in these cases, their undeniably important work is almost an afterthought.

The Importance of Being Pretty

In the UK, girls as young as seven years old already believe that their appearance is more important than their achievements or their character. While people used to think that these were inherent biological differences between girls and boys, the more we learn about neuroscience and neuroplasticity, we learn that this is not true. At birth, there is no difference between the brains of baby girls and baby boys. By adolescence, there are many differences, but these tend to be cultivated by society and not naturally developed.

From Philadelphia to the Philippines, girls are taught from an early age that their bodies are their biggest assets. They need to be appealing—but not too appealing, lest they get into trouble. The boys on the other hand, are simply dismissed with the old “boys will be boys” rhetoric.

What Can We Do?  

Children respond subconsciously to the expectations put on them by their family members, teachers, classmates, and the media they consume. In societies across the world, boys are often encouraged to explore and be independent, while  in the same families, girls are seen as more vulnerable and in need of protection. Emphasising these perceived differences enhances them, not the other way around. 

Fighting gender norms is a hard battle that has been fought for many decades now. The 21st century, thankfully, is starting to see true acceptance that these stereotypes can put immense pressure on people of all genders, and the freedom to express ourselves is beginning to be more normalised, regardless of where we fall along the gender spectrum. Awareness is the first step toward subverting these harmful expectations.