For decades, women in the workplace were openly considered as supporters, enablers and facilitators for powerful men. Most women were secretaries, telephone operators and typists. They were employed to sort out the details that were far beneath the attention of their male employers. Whilst the men did the ‘real’ work, the women busied themselves with frivolous particulars.
It was common for women to leave employment once they were married and ready to start a family. Organisations were full of young women with very little work experience taking on low-skilled jobs to support themselves until they found a husband. For many years this was how the workplace functioned, until some women decided that, actually, becoming wives or mothers didn’t mean that they suddenly stopped being independent people with career aspirations and ambitions.
The female working population took to the streets protesting sexist attitudes and behaviours in the workplace, equal pay rights and better maternity support. It wasn’t long before their male employers had to address the problems for fear that their networks of female support staff would never get back to running the day-to-day organisation of their businesses.
Many things began to get better. Some women were given more responsibility in better roles. Some were paid higher wages. Some were welcomed back to work with open arms after having children. Approaches began to change and some management teams (typically dominated by, if not solely made up of, men) started to accept that women were just as capable and accomplished in the workplace as their male counterparts.
We’re not there yet
Although strides have been made since those times to address discrimination and stereotyping of women in the workplace, there are many indications that gender equality is a long way from becoming an attainable goal. The full-time gender pay gap is 10 percent1. The European Commission defines this as the average difference between the hourly earnings of men and women. Does this fact indicate that female employees are not as valued as male employees? And if so, why is this the case?
Many have argued that the stereotypical image of a working mother is to blame, through which the phrase ‘Motherhood Penalty’ has been formed. A women with a full time job and a family cannot be expected to have a perfect work-life balance. Surely something must suffer. And because being a mother is such an important role and responsibility, workload sometimes becomes neglected. This in turn means that women are not given the same opportunities as men in terms of senior responsibilities, access to higher paid positions or the prospect of becoming partners or board members within corporate organisations. They are simply far too busy being mothers to fulfil a job role as successfully a man.
Perhaps the answer to this problem is not a workplace-based attitude change, but a home-based solution. Why should domestic activities such as caring for children, cooking and cleaning be commonly considered as primarily a woman’s responsibility? If it was more readily acceptable in society for men and women to share these duties then the work-life balance would be an issue for all employers and employees. For example, if both men and women with families had to leave work early to pick up their children from school then organisations may consider a more flexible approach to the traditional working day.
In some cases, women on maternity leave are not subject to the same opportunities as colleagues not on maternity leave. This can include the possibility of a promotion advertised at a time when a capable candidate is on maternity leave. Just because she is away from the office for a short time in relation to length of working life, should she miss out on a prospect if she is ‘the best man for the job’ (pardon the expression)? Should that woman decide to have more children, again she will miss out. Over her working life this can add up to a substantial difference in pay to a working woman with no children.
Shared maternity and paternity leave is a subject that is currently being discussed by several political parties. In the future, new mothers and fathers may share the statutory leave time. Does this mean that men with children will also miss out as far as workplace opportunities are concerned?
Stereotypes in the workplace
Another factor that may contribute to fewer senior positions for women in the workplace is the concept of ‘office banter’. Many men in senior positions have commented on the social side of their roles; sharing a joke with colleagues, discussing the latest (insert preferred sport here) match scores, telling their co-workers what ridiculous task their wife/girlfriend/significant other asked them to complete this weekend. This can create a ‘locker room’ atmosphere where men use language or gestures that female colleagues find inappropriate. It can generate an environment that is uncomfortable for women to work in and so they stay on the lower rungs of the career ladder where there is a more diverse workforce.
For the small number that manage to make it to the top, in many instances, another level of discrimination greets them. ‘Women in charge’ is a concept that has long been a sticking point for some male-dominated organisations. Whilst male bosses are often described as assertive, focused and strong, female bosses are considered brusque, bossy and over-sensitive. Perhaps men are just more accustomed to being managed by men and so find it difficult to work under the supervision of female employers. Or perhaps powerful women are being discriminated against.
Interestingly, the media, whilst stating their disdain for discrimination and stereotyping, are inadvertently promoting gender inequality. A great example of this was the re-shuffle of the cabinet in July of this year, which included the appointment of three female ministers. Rather than comment at length about their political ideals, approaches and experiences, many prominent newspapers ran articles describing in detail the attire of the women on their first day at Number 10. If the commentary on such powerful women focuses on their fashion choices then what hope is there for the average woman in the workplace to be taken seriously?
In her speech as the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson noted that the word ‘feminist’ is often mistaken as a synonym of ‘man-hater’. For gender equality to become a reality, men and women must realise that feminism does not mean hatred of or against men, but rather a desire for both genders to be treated equitably.
A recent infographic by Yahoo Lifestyle estimated that, at the current rate, it will be 150 years before there is an equal number of men and women elected to English local coucils2. If we have developed as a species to the point where we can land on comets and access the internet through a pair of spectacles, surely we can address these issues and ensure that gender inequality becomes a thing of the past.
- King, Mark (2012, 22 November) ‘Gender pay gap falls for full-time workers’ The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2012/nov/22/gender-pay-gap-falls-full-time-workers