I would never describe myself as a raging feminist (much to my mother’s disappointment), I’ll admit I like to benefit from the traditional cliches of being a woman when it comes to getting into a bar or having a man let you go first through a door. However being a woman in the 21st Century from a middle-class upbringing, living in a developed country means that I have a definite sense of supposed ‘equality’ between the sexes – particularly when it comes to the workplace.
I’d like to say I’ve never experienced any gender-based exclusion in the workplace, or rather I’d like to never admit that I had perhaps allowed or not fought hard enough against it happening. Perhaps this was why I tried to find other excuses or reasons for why I had been treated differently to the (heterosexual*) men in my previous office.
It started small, almost unnoticeable, things like lower pay, longer hours, less travel or other perks; issues never discussed particularly when working for a not-for-profit and which I attributed to my age and position. But as I rose in role and length of service within the organisation I noticed that although those around me were benefiting from work trips, more opportunities and a greater voice I began to question why that was not also occurring to me.
Forget the travel or the fact that I was the only staff member at my level using a personal phone (a budget Nokia rather than the office-paid iPhone every male was handed when walking through the door) it was the attitude of the person in charge which made me feel as though my voice was not only weakened but non-existent.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m no wallflower, I’ll be the first to say what I think and that was no different, I had a physical voice but was left feeling that that voice was neither listened or respected at the top. One day during a team meeting, I looked around the room and noticed that of those sitting around the large table 60% were female – a good balance you might say particularly in the charity world were women often far outnumbered men. However of those 10 females, only myself and one other were of a senior position compared to 7 of the 8 males.
These figures aren’t shocking I know, particularly compared to those in the corporate world when women fail to break through the glass ceiling, however it was the attitude with which the status of women was treated within the organisation that began to fall into place when the person in charge told me that it was ‘hard to find senior women with experience so really the only way is to bring them in at the bottom and train them up’. Hard to find senior women?
My head spun as it immediately began creating a list of top women I knew within the sector, and then again to the shock at what I had thought were old ideas portrayed in Mad Men of women as secretaries only. Was I really hearing this from a supposedly progressive organisation and if so what was it like in the corporate world?
At TED Women last month, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg discussed her thoughts on being a senior woman within the corporate workforce and the roles that both sexes have to play when it comes to gender equality. Some of the statistics she cited stood out in her talk: of the 190 world leaders only 9 are women, even in the not-for-profit world that is typically associated as more ‘female’ only 20% of Directors were women. She questioned the usual reasons and rationale for the gender inequalities (childbirth, attitude to females and of females themselves) and discussed how women not only need to be respected more but also to respect themselves more – to quite literally ‘sit at the table’ and place themselves in the middle of the action.
The role of women in the workforce is no new topic, nor is the issue of women’s empowerment more broadly in the developing world. However even at the top organisations in the world are womens’ rights really being noticed or more importantly being acted upon?
The Guardian this week reported that the new UN agency for women ‘UN Women’ (launched next month) was already falling behind on commitments needed to make a difference: ‘The World Bank has estimated it would cost $83bn to achieve millennium development goal three (promote gender equality and empower women). But very quickly the start up budget [for UN Women] was set at around $500m.’ Can the public really be expected to shift their ways of thinking if the organisation in charge continues to quite literally undervalue the role women have to play in the global arena?
There’s no easy answer to this, we’ve already come a long way since my grandmothers’ or even my mother’s day and some might say we’re being greedy but in order to work together towards a more equal world in both the developed and less-developed worlds we need to value and respect both the men and women in our workplace. With the 100th anniversary of International Womens’ Day in March this issue will only increase as we will be forced to reflect: how far have women really come in the last century?
*And then the issue of being a non-heterosexual man in the workplace is a whole other issue!