Pink Collar, Blue Collar

A look back at the OECD Forum 2017 session

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This article is part of the Forum Network series on New Societal Contract 

Unconscious gender biases are present everywhere, from high-level functions in government, political parties, STEM careers, the film industry, the media, advertising, global conferences, and even children’s toys. The impact of such biases holds women back in many ways. It also affects the vision and expectations from men and women in society: while men should be “driven” and “result oriented”, women must be “nurturing” and “inclusive”. The aim of this session was to explore some of the policies and solutions to address this. 

Gender parity and GDP

HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark set the scene by underlining the gender barriers faced by both women and men in accessing the right education and skills, necessary to meet the demands of the workforce today and tomorrow. She also reflected on the role of social norms in influencing women’s economic choices and opportunities, often enhancing discriminatory stereotypes which affect equal pay and promotion. Quoting Sheryl Sandberg, HRH Crown Princess Mary called on participants to commend a young girl’s executive leadership skills instead of saying she is “bossy”. 

What's holding women back from top jobs?

While senior managers genuinely agree that there is a need for greater diversity at all leadership levels, they still tend to fall back on unconscious opinions when making final hiring and promotion decisions. In believing that the best candidates are “people like them”, they further a pattern of homogenous and non-diverse management.

The answer to ending gender bias is building an ecosystem where there are no gendered expectations, and help individuals become conscious of these biases. Gendered expectations are perpetuated from generation to generation, by men and women. These biases are triggered by social norms, discriminatory and insufficiently protective laws, unpaid work, unequal access to the digital universe, economic assets, etc. The language used to refer to men and women also has a strong influence on the way they learn to perceive gender and ascribe themselves roles in the greater context of society.

Culture and tradition, however, are not easy to change. Denmark is exploring new projects and initiatives in this space, including hiring more men in daycare institutions, promoting men as caregivers, as well as an app called the NormTwister to increase awareness of gender-based divisions amongst childcare staff.

Dreams are built from more colors than blue or pink

Panellists focused on children, early learning and the need for more adequate role models. The role of education is key to dispell these myths, as noted by Chiara Corazza, Managing Director, Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society. She insisted on the power of role models and the need for greater representation of strong, successful women in leadership positions. Bjorn Jeffery, CEO and Co-Founder, Toca Boca, Sweden highlighted the role of technology in creating new norms by developing gender-neutral toys. For example, the Toca hair salon, which could be considered a girl’s game, is as popular with boys in light of its gender-neutral design. As Bjorn pointed out, gender biases are social constructs that have evolved over time: for instance, pink was a masculine colour in the 1920s. Responsibility lies with parents, toymakers, and the media to evolve this conversation.

Rasmus Kjeldahl, Executive Director, Børns Vilkår stressed the fact that a lot of gendered choices are based on business needs. It is now important that companies realise that gender equality is not a threat commercially, and can in fact broaden the spectrum of customers, with more inclusive products attracting a broader spectrum of individuals. In addition, in developing policy, governments need to make innovative suggestions to transform family and daycare institutions, where gender biases generally start growing. Governments and business must team up to provide choices for families: for example, mandatory paternity leaves could help make sure that young children perceive their fathers as caregivers. 

Source: OECD

While it seems that the Generation Z is calling for alternatives, tangible options are needed. The disruptive effect of digitalisation on the society and the economy holds the potential to transform gender biases and create new norms. This includes an adjustment of the way men and women are portrayed in the media. Annette Young, Host, 51 Percent, France 24, reported that some media institutions, such as Bloomberg News, are making commitments to an inclusive work environment as it has a positive impact on the whole media landscape globally.

Akiko Yamanaka, Special Advisor to the President, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) reminded the audience of women’s roles in Japan during World War II and more recently during the Fukushima disaster: in times of crises, gender roles can be redefined. More recently, Japan held for the first time the WAW! conference (The World Assembly for Women), with significant and high-level male contributions, including Prime Minister Abe.

Participants and panellists closed the debate by calling for a shift away from binary choices. In order to elevate the conversation and make this shift happen, men and women need to join forces.

  • How can education systems contribute to change mindsets and stereotypes?
  • How does the issue of unconscious gender bias play out cross-culturally?
  • Which is most important for you in addressing gender stereotypes: new role models, a shift in the media or more protective laws?

The Forum Network is an interactive space where concepts are challenged and new ideas are formed to shape better policies for better lives. Comment below to give your thoughts and continue the conversation!

Related Topics

Gender Equality

Got a few more minutes?

Session panellists:


  • Annette Young, Host, 51 Percent, France 24 @AnnetteF24

Scene Setting

  • HRH The Crown Princess, Denmark


  • Chiara Corazza, Managing Director, Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society @chiaracorazzaWF
  • Bjorn Jeffery, CEO and Co-Founder, Toca Boca, Sweden @bjornjeffery
  • Rasmus Kjeldahl, Executive Director, Børns Vilkår  @kjeldra
  • Akiko Yamanaka, Special Advisor to the President, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA)

Watch the video session “Pink Collar, Blue Collar” at the OECD Forum