The vote, equal pay, maternity rights, human rights act, employment law and the rest have all been designed to create a level playing field for women, minorities and those who historically have not had a voice.
Have they worked?
Yes and no.
It’s very easy to become disgruntled with the continued lack of equality in the workplace by the simple measure of pay rates. Women still overall earn less than men. That is a fact that is undisputed. However, I believe that compared to where we were even twenty years ago, a huge amount of progress has been made.
In my first role in an engineering office consisting of three hundred men and about ten women, the equality gap was glaringly obvious. There were only three women in positions of management and two of those women weren’t engineers, so in effect there was one female engineer in a management grade role. Not good statistics.
Then there were the calendars of topless women that still adorned the walls of all-male offices, the senior manager who told me that I wasn’t allowed to present to an audience of men because I was a woman and the final straw came when I was told that I’d been promoted too quickly and wouldn’t be promoted for another two years. A conversation that hadn’t been conducted with a male counterpart I was working with at the time.
Things have moved on. There are more female law graduates starting in law firms than male. More female medical graduates with placements than ever before, pretty much 50/50 and yet there are fewer female partners in law firms and fewer female consultants than would be expected, with the intake levels.
In the construction industry there are hardly any women in senior positions or indeed, out on the building sites. Primary schools still have a massive imbalance of female compared to male staff and yet at secondary level, males prevail in senior positions.
My children have all been educated and brought up to believe in equality. They see their mother and father both going out to work and taking a share of domestic duties and I’m sure this is repeated throughout the UK.
So what exactly happens in the workplace? Where does that equality go to?
I think the answer is really simple. Women have the babies. Men don’t give birth. This means that on a very practical level, women are physically out of the workplace for months on end and so they have to play catch up on return. Then, with the best will in the world between parents, it’s usually the mother that does the pick-up when the child is ill, the doctors, dentists and school appointments and it’s usually the woman who goes back to work part-time.
Whilst the phrase, “I’m/she’s only part-time” continues to be used in the workplace and women continue to feel guilty about not working hard enough or being a good enough mother, then inequality will continue. I once read an article which interviewed men about taking six to twelve months off on paternity leave if it was paid. One of the men stated that he wouldn’t take that time off to be with his child because it would adversely affect his career opportunities. My response to that was, “no s*** Sherlock! Really?”
There is another angle to this story too. My second employer promoted me very quickly because I was really good at what I did. I ended up being an office manager for them within eighteen months of joining the business and no one got in my way. However, I looked up the chain of command and noticed that all the directors were male. They all had children and wives who either didn’t work or who worked part-time. This enabled them to be free to work excessively long hours, travel all over the UK at the drop of a hat and move house at will when a promotion arose.
I considered this as an option for my future and decided that I didn’t like it. Even during my ambitious early twenties, I knew that I wanted a healthy work/life balance and clawing my way to the top simply wasn’t worth the sacrifice in broken relationships, not seeing my children grow up, or the stress.
This is a choice that many women make. They look at what it takes to get to the board room and make a conscious decision that it’s not the way they want to live. There are plenty of highly capable women who could be running FT100 companies, but they prefer to have a better balance in their lives. Some men choose that too.
So, society isn’t equal, there is still casual sexism in the workplace and everyday life, but society in the UK has made massive progress in a very short space of time and I’m confident that it will continue to do so. Women can get to the top if they want to, it’s just that not that many do because they know what’s really important in life. Women at least have a choice in 2013 and have recourse to the law if discriminated against. We have a voice and that’s something that my mother or my grandmother certainly never had in the workplace.
There’s always more to do.
Rebecca Bonnington is a Leadership Coach and Corporate Trainer and Licensed Trainer of NLP. You can follow her work by going to www.rebeccainspires.com. She is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.