Acknowledging Gender as an Issue in the WorkplaceApr 15th, 2006 | By Jennifer Worrall Lynch | Category: Economy, Feminism, Society
In the past year, the Equal Opportunities Commission in the UK has celebrated 30 years of the Sex Discrimination Act. The state of women’s employment has changed dramatically in this time. A couple of years before the Act was passed, only one in four mothers with pre-school children was working, but by 2004, this figure had increased to 52%.
Women are now much more likely to become top managers. In 1974, a tiny 1.8% of managers were women, but the most recent figures state that 33.1% of managers are women. Furthermore, the Chartered Management Institute declares that women in the UK are now getting promoted more quickly than men, with the average female team leader being 37 years old, compared to an average age of 41 for men.
Those of us who are female and have career ambitions should be delighted by such statistics and feel empowered by the achievements of so many women now making it in to the upper echelons of their chosen organisations. Yet, there is something slightly unconvincing about this supposed success story. How can we be expected to celebrate progress when a report published at the end of last month declared that women in full-time employment in the UK are earning 17% less than men? Even Prime Minister Tony Blair has admitted, in the light of these findings, that there is a massive amount of work to be done to close the pay gap between men and women.
It has been asserted that this report is evidence of a lack of support, career advice, and positive female role models for women. As a woman working in one of the very few British local government authorities with a woman chief executive, I am led to believe that I should feel supported by a female-friendly organisation that is focused on enabling its talented women to break through that glass ceiling. I would suggest that while I feel well supported in my job, this has nothing to do with my gender and no consideration has been given to how my experience of work may differ from my male colleagues.
But I suppose the question to ask is should my organisation even be considering my supposed plight as a woman? There is now a whole generation of women in employment who were not born when the Sex Discrimination Act came in to force in the UK. In this day and age, when both Canada and the UK have experienced the leadership of women in high office, should we really be comparing workers on the basis of their gender?
To me, it is apparent that the gender equality message has been diluted in recent years due to the sheer numbers of women now in employment. Gender issues seem to be considered yesterday’s news and there is a widespread impression that the participation of women in all aspects of public life has increased. In a recent study of a MBA course, students were asked their views of a new elective on gender. Researchers found that both male and female participants expressed some antipathy towards the topic. Many felt that “it had all been done already” through equal opportunities training in the workplace. Female students appeared embarrassed by the focus on “their issues,” while the men felt antagonistic that they were perceived as needing “sensitivity training” in such matters.
The suggestion that gender issues may exist at work seems to be, for many, inappropriate and for some offensive. Both men and women want to believe that the position of women in organisations is improving; yet, the statistics don’t always support this view.
Despite significant increases in the employment of women, the total labour turnover rate for female managers in the UK is greater than that for men and within this, women are also more likely to resign than their male colleagues. Moreover, while the National Health Service (NHS) is the largest employer of women in the UK – over 75% of its workforce is female – a study of NHS Scotland has shown that women are out-numbered on boards by two to one. Although more women than ever are working, their status is low and the environment in which they work is not conducive to them sustaining their position long-term at the top end of organisations.
Feminists have suggested that the cultures and values that are inherent in organisations automatically disadvantage women. Bureaucracy reflects a specifically male way of organising, so that even if women are moving into more senior posts, this does not necessarily mean that these organisations are losing their patriarchal character. It also explains why even women may not feel discriminated against in their every-day working life. The discrimination is not overt as inequality is manifested in the unconscious principles that underlie the organisation itself.
Furthermore, because organisations are inherently male, men become the norm against which women are measured. This rings alarm bells for the status of female employment. The gendered division of labour between practice and management is well documented with women holding most of the practice positions in professions, such as teaching, nursing, and social work, while men dominate the management grades. Our conceptions of what characteristics different jobs require are shaped by our conceptions of the people who carry them out. These gender schemas mean that we end up associating roles with a certain sex.
The worrying bit of all this for public services is that a lack of female representation on management boards means that most public bodies are making decisions on the basis of the views of a relatively narrow strand of society. Due to the different range of occupations that women and men originate from, the experience that women bring with them to their participation on management boards may be very different to that of their male counterparts. These boards need a balance of skills, experience, and background in order to secure the confidence of local communities. Women also need different things from public services. For example, British women’s biggest fear of crime is rape and physical attack. Domestic violence accounts for one in four incidents of violent crime in the UK, yet policing, criminal justice, health, and housing services do not always prioritise violence against women.
Increasing representation in public service organisations will not only affect women’s pay and status, but it is a vital issue to tackle for the sake of the legitimacy of the services that we provide for the whole community. Women must strive to ensure that their gender is acknowledged as part of who they are so that the organisations in which they work can meet their needs and benefit from their attributes. This is even more important in public service organisations in order that both men and women receive vital and appropriate services.
For the report on the UK pay gap visit here.
Equal Opportunities Commission, 2005
Miller, Hagen and Johnson, 2002
Chartered Management Institute, 2005