Why are we still defining women by how many children they have?

Is it important to know how many children a professional woman has or whether she is in a relationship?

Judging by the profiles of speakers at an upcoming real estate conference, this information seems to be relevant, although only for the female presenters.

The event is billed as Australia’s largest real estate conference and features a range of speakers from international sales gurus to local real estate agents.

Of the 23 speakers at the event, four of them are women and all their profiles include their parenting or relationship status.

The first profile of a female presenter mentions that she is a mother of a four-year-old boy. Her presentation, titled ‘Super Agent, Super Mum’ is on achieving work-life balance, so including information about her child is relevant.

However, in the case of the other three female speakers the fact that two of them are mothers and that the other has a partner is not at all relevant.

A good litmus test to determine if something is sexist, is to see if men are being treated in a similar manner.

So, for comparison, I reviewed the profiles of the 19 male speakers. Only one mentions the man’s family and it is simply as an end note highlighting his interests outside of work, which also include his sporting endeavours and educational achievements.

While I’m sure the writers of the conference program were unaware of the subtle form of sexism at play, the fact that it is so subtle highlights how we perceive working women.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian experienced this during one of her first interviews following taking the leadership role earlier this year.

A journalist asked her: “The obvious question is, do you think this (the fact that she is unmarried and does not have children) is a disadvantage politically because people have kids and they have families and people identify with that?”.

If it is such an obvious question why isn’t it being asked of male politicians?

This emphasis on professional women’s personal relationships matter because they reinforce messages that women receive all the time.

It seems that a woman’s success is measured not just by her career performance but also how well she balances her career with family duties.

The implicit message is that parenting and domestic duties sit firmly in the lap of women.

And based on latest research showing that women still undertake the lion’s share of domestic duties, that is the reality of many working women’s lives.

However, it is also a chicken and egg scenario. If we continue describing women in terms of their parenting and relationship status, and keep talking about work/life balance as a female issue, we are reinforcing the notion that women have to balance caring with career.

So how do we counter this way of thinking?

Awareness is key – Simply being aware of how we describe women in the workplace and what we categorise as female issues is a starting point.

We should stop talking about work/life balance as a working woman’s issue and realise it’s an issue that is important to anyone who works and has interests outside of work.

Calling it out – When you see this form of subtle sexism it’s important to draw attention to it and create an awareness that men and women are often not portrayed in the same way in a professional setting.

Calling it out doesn’t have to be confrontational. It can simply be a matter of opening up a conversation: “Isn’t it interesting the way we talk about work/life balance (or whatever the issue may be) as a woman’s issue?”. Then encourage others to give their views.

What we communicate can send powerful messages, and often we are unaware that we’re even being sexist in the way we represent working women.

So next time your read about a professional woman’s parenting status, ask the question: “Would this matter if it was a man?”.

This story was published on the Women’s Agenda website on 5 May 2017.