A thought for the day

Tim Johns
08th March 2017

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A Thought for the Day

On this year's International Women's Day we offer you two individual viewpoints on issues surrounding gender equality in the workplace. 

By Tim Johns, Mastered Alumni 2015

It does feel rather sad that in 2017 there should still be the need for a special day to focus the mind on the need for gender parity.  On the one hand, reducing the issue to being one of many awareness days risks it being no more than another marketing ploy; and on the other, there is a danger that by focusing on parity it merely serves to highlight gender differences.  But one thing is for sure: questioning the role of the day exposes one to accusations of being, at best, patronising and, at worst, sexist.  Gender politics is a good example of the politically sensitive eggshells that have to be navigated. And thus it is with a great deal of trepidation that I offer these thoughts on how to increase gender diversity in the UK workplace.

There is no doubt that the more representative the world of work is of society then the healthier it will be.  Diversity of thought and attitude lead to better decision making.  So why is it that in the 21st Century we are still looking for ways to increase the number of women in senior positions? The numbers tell the story: there are more women than men in lower paid occupations.  But although the diagnosis is agreed upon, the way to address the problem is less certain.

For some, the main area of concern is the lack of female role models.  That may be true in certain areas (for instance, science and engineering, and coding in particular) but generally from Clytemnestra, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, to the present day, there are plenty of women in significant positions of influence. It seems to me that although role models can be a good way of demonstrating that anything is possible, they also imply that women need permission when, of course, they don’t. 

A second area is the lack of suitability.  There are jobs that some people feel are simply not appropriate for women.  This again, is a fallacious argument implying, as it does, that all men and women are physically dissimilar.  Nowadays, there are very few roles which rely solely on physical prowess.  Flying aeroplanes used to be physical work; now it’s fly by computer.  Robots and computers have replaced much physical effort, and now it’s less about human effort and more about human touch. In fact, for most roles the suitability difference tends to be between individuals rather than between genders.

A third area of concern is the lack of opportunity.  Due to conscious or even unconscious bias, certain roles and occupations are not open to women.  Senior men, it is thought, self-select people like them, artificially blocking the path for others.  There is an element of truth in this as, generally, organisations tend to be very poor at encouraging diversity in all’s its various guises, preferring to fish in the same gene pool.  One solution to this dilemma is quotas.  However, this can be divisive with many women seeing it as patronising and encouraging mediocrity.  They want to get a job because they are the best, not because of their gender.  Others say that quotas are the only way to fix a system skewed against them.  One thing is certain: that the biggest arguments on this issue tend to be amongst women themselves.

So, what should we do.  I think that there are two areas where we should focus.  The first is on our own interpersonal behaviours and attitudes.  Perhaps we spend too much time looking for differences rather than looking at what unites us.  It has become fashionable to believe that men and women have different brains and, consequently, think and behave differently.  So much so that, it seems, we come from different planets.  The fact is that the male and female brains are almost identical.  Over time – that is, as we programme them – they may come to be used differently.  For instance, neuroscience provides some evidence that the male/female brains are wired differently.  But before we get too carried away, what that actually means is that in a statistically significant number of experiments, male/female subjects in an fMRI scanner, when shown pictures chosen to act as a proxy for emotions, had different parts of their right front insular cortex light up.  In reality, the male/female brains are pretty much the same.  Differences in emotions, intelligence, decision-making, and attitudes are actually more influenced by our primary socialisation.  Focusing on differences has the effect of perpetuating them rather than narrowing them.  It would be better if our education and parenting was focused on the realities of similarity rather than myths of difference.

Second, we should put a great deal of effort into solving the structural impediments to gender diversity in the workplace.  Take, for instance, two graduates – one male, and one female - starting with the same company on the same day and, obviously, on the same pay.  Over time, their pay, rewards, promotions, and opportunities will be impacted by their life choices. They may want to work part-time, or job share in order to care for elderly relatives, or to take time out to raise a family.  All such decisions will fundamentally affect their chances in the workplace.  This, in turn, reduces the diversity further up the chain.  Therefore, rather than introduce quotas we should be thinking how we can use technology and change behaviours to make the workplace more relevant to people’s needs.  And if this wasn’t important before, the coming of (androgynous?) robots means that now is the time to make work work for all.

International Women’s Day remains important.  It serves to remind us how far we’ve come but how far we still have to go.  It encourages us to celebrate achievements and embolden us all towards greater effort.  And it would, of course, be foolish to imply that there is no difference between the sexes.  The big difference, as Oscar Wilde reminded us is that: “All women become like their mother’s; that is their tragedy.  No man does; that is theirs.”

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