Why Such Tepid Governmental Aspirations?

The Government talks about ‘naming and shaming’ to close the pay gender pay gap, aspiring to close it within a generation. It is perhaps worth remembering when the Equal Pay Act came into force – 1970! 45 years on and we’re still only aspiring to close the gap within another 20 years. This is not aspirational thinking, to say the least. Why do gender issues raise so much heat and so little light? Pick up a newspaper and you will find a story about today’s ‘laddish culture’, or why the tech industry is so hostile to women, the effect of social media on silencing certain voices – or about which celebrity has or hasn’t lost her pregnancy bulge after giving birth or how some star wore the wrong clothes on the red carpet. Society knows it has a problem in giving equal respect to men and women, it reveals it day after day in our newspapers, on the web and on our screens, and yet fundamental change still seems a long way off. It seems one step forward and one step back: more women in top jobs, but of those women a large proportion then removed for reasons that no man would be subjected to, as in the recent case of Ellen Pao; more girls entering the professions but their attrition rate subsequently much higher than for men; those women who speak out about the issues that matter to them (e.g. Christine Criado-Perez regarding the face of a woman on the £5 note) being trolled viciously as a result. Our society remains deeply inimical to women, whatever our laws say.

Last week I spoke to an organisation only just starting to move on the diversity agenda, preparing its first Athena Swan application. As an institution steeped in engineering it starts from a low percentage of women in its workforce. As I established as I prepared slides for my talk, only about 8% of the engineering workforce in the UK are women (whereas in Latvia around 30% are, which rather gives the lie to it all being down to our chromosomes); the percentage of new apprentices who are female is only about half that number so things aren’t going to turn around any time soon. Indeed, of a current specific apprentice programme I was told out of 500 or so entrants only 7 were female. The problems in encouraging young girls to consider engineering as a career start very early; we are not simply talking about the women dropping out.

I also talked at a second (not specifically engineering) organisation with a female director and a higher percentage – though still low – of women in their workforce also setting their sights on Athena Swan. In both organisations I heard similar stories. Women too often weren’t listened to when they identified problems, perhaps about part-time working, perhaps when being talked over during meetings. The management wanted to address the issues but changing a workplace culture doesn’t happen overnight. It is hard and many women will still suffer setbacks and possibly victimisation for speaking out.

Everyone has to play their part and, unfortunately, not everyone wants to. People have axes to grind, egos to fuel or just intrinsic blindness to the lack of equality surrounding them. Management has to take a clear lead so that they are responsive to the issues every time they are raised. It is not adequate to say ‘we are gender blind’, whilst simultaneously failing to appoint women to senior roles or allowing managers to ignore requests for flexible/part-time working without giving the matter any thought.  An organisation pledged to gender equality which nevertheless fixes official events in a club that doesn’t permit women to be members is breaking its own ethos. Leaders need to walk the walk as well as ensure that ideas regarding improvements in the workplace environment and career support that bubble up from workers lower down the hierarchy are heard and, if appropriate acted upon.

I was very struck when one of the women leading the drive for such improvements said of my talk that it was wonderful I was saying all the things that she had been saying. Whereas she had had pushback when she had spoken out, having an external voice coming in and saying similar things (there was no collusion between us!) meant she was optimistic people would start listening to what she had been saying all along – and doing something about it.

For organisations just starting their local programmes for improvement, beginning the thought processes that lead to an Athena Swan action plan, I would hope that they might take a look at my list of suggestions individuals (and organisations) might engage with to improve the local working environment. People at all levels should then add in more of their own, specific to their local working culture, and then the top brass should make damn sure to hold everyone to account. It is not sufficient just to have the words and not the actions. Too often one hears an organisation saying how effective they are when, down in the ranks as it were, inappropriate behaviour goes on unchallenged. Having increased the number of women at the higher levels does not mean a changed workplace culture if these women are brought in from outside because all the locally produced women have dropped out due to a toxic atmosphere. A claim that there is no bullying because managers make anyone raising complaints shake in their shoes before they’ve got past the first sentence of their nervously prepared statement is meaningless. A meeting where concerns are aired and but then the manager leaves with a friendly pat on the arm (at best) of the most attractive woman in the room is not indicative of progress. Having recently been present at a long discussion of equality issues – in yet a third organisation – I was astonished to observe more than one of the senior colleagues pat several of the (senior) women in a jocular way as the meeting adjourned. Harmless in this context, yes. Professional – well no.

So, I am not impressed by the government’s statement of intent to move towards pay equality in a generation. Nor am I impressed by organisations that make the right noises but don’t follow through. The government, and leadership everywhere, has to pay heed to the stories that abound in the newspapers of everyday sexism and worse. Glib mission statements get us nowhere.

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3 Responses to Why Such Tepid Governmental Aspirations?

  1. vla22 says:

    So – a generation – 25 years. Personally, I’d quite like the gender gap in pay closed soon, so I don’t take a gender hit on my pension. Because 25 years takes me fairly close to retirement. Also, with most pension schemes now being career-average rather than final salary, you can’t hope that fixing this just before retirement will fix the inequity through persistent underpayment. This does not seem like a good way to ensure equality.

  2. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    Thanks for writing this. It’s excellent.

  3. Marnie Dunsmore says:


    On a related topic, I note yet another paper from the Wellcome Sanger Trust Institute published with a very low percentage of female authors:

    Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon genomes from East England reveal British migration history

    Given the high number of women in biology and in genetics, it is really inexcusable that the Wellcome Sanger Institute does not have a higher percentage women researchers and authors on its papers.

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