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Women need fixing and other fake news

It has been a couple of years since “fake news” was the word of the year, and it’s fair to say it is a term that has entered our common lexicon for good. I’m stretching the application of fake news today by using it as a lens to look at some common contributions to gender equality debates.

This exercise is partly inspired by two recent articles, one being Ruth Whippman’s brilliant piece suggesting that instead of telling women to lean in, we could start telling men to lean out.

“… instead of nagging women to scramble to meet the male standard, we should instead be training men and boys to aspire to women’s cultural norms... To be more deferential. To reflect and listen and apologize where an apology is due (and if unsure, to err on the side of a superfluous sorry than an absent one). To aim for modesty and humility and cooperation rather than blowhard arrogance.”

Combined with the recent revelation that women in an EY US branch were treated to some eye-opening training including learning that women’s brains are like pancakes but men’s brains are like waffles and each square is great for accumulating information in a way a woman’s just can’t.

We need to fix women

A common theme when talking about gender equality at work is that somehow the workplace isn’t so much the issue, but that women can do with a whole load of fixer-upping. Some suggested improvements you might recognise:

Women need to be more confident.

We need to stop apologising in emails so much.

We need to learn to negotiate.

We’re constantly bombarded with messages and research that point out all the ways in which women aren’t succeeding at work because it seems, we’re too much like women. Self-improvement both personally and professionally, is something we can all strive for, but when the narrative is consistently along the lines that we’re holding ourselves back and not about what needs to change in the workplace itself, it’s not a beneficial narrative. We could absolutely do more to recognise and embrace the qualities that make women great colleagues and leaders such as our empathy, emotional intelligence, and helpful nature. We should embrace the differences in men and women and focus the conversation on how we can build workplaces where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

There aren’t enough women

There are some shocking statistics that highlight the disparity between men and women in the workplace. A FTSE 100 CEO is more likely to be called Steve than be a female. 78% of gender pay gap reporting companies have a pay gap in favour of men because of a lack of senior women. A common argument is that there just aren’t enough women to fill top jobs, which seems difficult to believe when women make up almost half the workforce, and women caught up with men in higher education participation in 1992. Now, women are graduating university in greater numbers than men.

Companies should ensure that there are equal development opportunities and tracks to leadership for men and women. As Val Risk of Fujitsu Services says, “for me it’s not about building a pipeline of female talent. So many organisations are unknowingly sitting on talent, meaning they are not able to realise the potential and benefit that’s there”.

As a reminder of what we’re up against, here’s a list of reasons that male executives gave as to why there are too few female board numbers:

“I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment”

“There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board - the issues covered are extremely complex”

“Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board”

“Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?” “My other board colleagues wouldn’t want to appoint a woman on our board”

“All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up”

“We have one woman already on the board, so we are done - it is someone else’s turn” “There aren’t any vacancies at the moment - if there were I would think about appointing a woman”

Biology dictates the role of men and women

Beyond the fact that biologically women are the only ones that can give birth and breastfeed, pretty much any other role at home or in the workplace, is gender neutral. Employers can do more to recognise the role of men and women as parents rather than only recognising the “primary carer” and assuming this is the mother. Parental leave of equal length for mothers and fathers is thankfully becoming more popular amongst employers and it’ll be interesting to see the impact of greater take up of longer paternity leave by fathers. And as more companies move to flexible working being the norm for all employees, we can move away from the stigma attached to mothers requesting flexible working arrangements to manage caring responsibilities. Regardless of which parent takes parental leave, or whether any employee embraces flexible working, the workplace should allow the same development and career opportunities to all employees.

The men are fine

Gender equality is not just a women’s issue. Gender equality benefits everyone, including men. In the UK, suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. The suicide prevention charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) says that men and boys are often more vulnerable to taking their own lives because:

  • They feel a pressure to be a winner and can more easily feel like the opposite.

  • They feel a pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.

  • They feel a pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

By releasing both men and women from traditional gender roles and the expectations that come with them, everyone would be better off.

Men now want to be more involved in raising families than past generations. Recent research by Daddilife and Deloitte found that “millennial dads are prepared to take drastic action to make sure they achieve a lifestyle that is good for work and good for their families”. A third of dads had changed jobs since becoming a father and a further third were actively looking to change jobs. The same report also found nearly half of working fathers said they regularly experienced “tension” from their employer when trying to balance work and family life, and had to concoct dentist visits or pull sickies to carry out childcare responsibilities. Almost half believe that their employer treats mothers better.

Achieving gender equality

If we want to achieve gender equality in the workplace, then we need to build workplaces that embrace diversity and allow parents to progress their careers while being able to balance parenting roles at home. In order to achieve this we have to stop allowing out-dated and prejudiced thinking about gender norms hold people back. And move the focus away from fixing women to changing the way we do things so that our biases about either gender don’t hold anyone back. (More on that in future blogs.)

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