Equal opportunities. A badge many organisations wear with pride. Yet about which, perhaps, they ought to feel a little uncomfortable. In case anyone thinks it through and realises it’s an impossibility.
While the phrase has two parts — equality and opportunity — the focus here will primarily be on equality, as this presents the deepest challenge and one that’s both societal and organisational. We literally walk inequality from the streets through the revolving door.
We also have to understand and grapple with the difference between equality of opportunity (the starting position) and equality of outcome (the finish). We may be seduced by the fable of the tortoise and the hare, but in almost every scenario, while they line up together at the start, the hare wins. An equal opportunity rarely leads to an equal outcome. An equal outcome rarely arises from an equal opportunity.
Practically, equality is entirely possible. In 2010 the Equality Act was passed in the UK with the purpose of eliminating discrimination, promoting equality and fostering good relations in respect of a number of aspects of who we are and how we choose to be. There are no specific limiting factors of which we know that would prevent the Act being implemented in full in every organisation across each of its nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
There are glaring omissions from the nine characteristics. Neurodiversity and menopause, in particular. In regard to the former, up to one in seven of the working population are deemed to be neurodivergent, in that their cognitive functions are at odds with systems, processes and spaces created by organisations for neurotypical colleagues. That neurodiversity has a strong correlation with creativity means that many organisations are disadvantaging not just many of their people, but themselves and their future. Today’s systems and processes were the result of yesterday’s creativity. The latter, menopause, we’ll deal with in due course.
If we were to attempt to cover all nine characteristics — and those missing, yet equally worthy of consideration — in one short essay, we’d be skidding over pack ice. So, we’ll consider equal opportunities through the lens of that protection affecting the largest number — gender. Respecting the many nuances of the subject, we’ll do so in terms of simply male and female. Even in this area there’s a lot to consider, such that it’s like trying to fit an ocean into a test tube.
Before we consider opportunities in terms of our comparatively cosseted careers in the ‘developed’ world, we sometimes forget that in many countries, women have no rights or protection at all: to their status, assets or even their own physical being. Their struggle is fundamental, but we’re barely aware of their exposure to almost primitive societal norms and the havoc and pain they wreak. Women have no recourse when wronged, no appeal when accused. They’re merely a commodity for men to do with as they please without consequence. By rights, there should be no-one left in a developed economy who isn’t a feminist.
Let’s consider just how stacked against women is the idea of equal opportunities employment.
We can trace the issues faced by women in the workplace through points in a lifespan. We begin with the tricky subject of biology. In terms of the big issues, there are fundamentally two: children (optional) and the menopause (compulsory). Men have only to worry about being a causal factor in regard to the former and on the receiving end of the latter, albeit in the latter it’s at least poetic justice. Even though it’s more likely they don’t worry about it because they often know little about it.
Children create the need on most occasions for a career break, assuming maternity cover is available (not so for the self-employed, of course) and are a continued draw on time. Being designated the primary carer in any family — resulting in the main from being the one who carried the ever-enlarging infant for 9 months and was then required to breast-feed for as long as the practice could be sustained — has given rise to what has become termed the ‘second shift’. That is, the work associated with looking after a child, that starts before the day job and continues after the rest of the team have adjourned to the pub for some vital offline bonding. That women can find themselves being taken to task over for not attending.
Therefore, it’s two additional unpaid shifts. Naturally the mother gets the phone call when the infant is ill at school and has to leave to collect, and takes the bulk of the leave during school holidays. In 1970 in the US women went on strike over their burden of unpaid labour and were urged to write resignation letters to their partners: “You can fend for yourselves.” Even today many recipients of the note wouldn’t know where to even begin.
Just when the time and energy drain of childcare begins to abate comes the next sledgehammer, the unavoidable menopause: around 8 years of a jamboree bag of 40 ever morphing symptoms that takes a tenth of women out of the workforce for good. Only around a quarter of women escape with little effect at all — for three-quarters it’s problematic to varying degrees. This hits women just at the time they’re likely to be at the peak of their careers. Even today many are reluctant to talk about it and very few men understand why their colleagues and partners have become irrational, moody, overweight and sweaty. Men have no biological excuse for finding themselves in a similar condition. It remains the last workplace taboo, which is extraordinary given that it’s the single biggest wellbeing issue facing any organisation.
The cause of the ill effects of the menopause is the drop in the body of the hormone oestrogen. It drives the need to care, to placate, put oneself behind others. Post-menopause, the level falls to prepubescent levels. ‘Second phase’ (post-menopausal) women are often therefore a different prospect altogether — determined, forceful and self-oriented. It requires men in many regards to re-learn what women are about. While potentially not strictly caused by biology, the dominance of oestrogen in women in their “first phase” and their tendency to think of others before themselves goes some way toward explaining male entitlement. For it’s this factor that creates so many societal and hence workplace problems. Men are used to putting themselves first and having women put them first — so where’s the incentive to change? For them, the expectation of dominance pans out quite nicely.
Then there are the perceptions. Like tone of voice. The rumour was that Margaret Thatcher, the first female British Prime Minister, had her voice coached to a lower pitch during her political ascent to create a greater air of authority, but the truth seems to be that she took this on herself, almost certainly damaging her vocal cords in the process. Shrill and high-pitched voices are considered to denote hysteria rather than assurance, not commensurate with the exercise of power. Of course, there are cultural variations in this regard, but it’s the dominant perspective globally. All of which goes a long way toward explaining the seemingly unstoppable rise of men of mediocre ability in the workplace.
You’d think nature just didn’t want women to succeed. The fact that they do is all the more impressive and admirable. That’s before we’ve even considered how institutionally f*cked is the system of work.
First, we need to consider the burden of history. To say it hasn’t been kind to women is an understatement. Whether it’s King Mundhir’s sacrifice of 400 Christian virgins to the goddess al-Uzza in what is now southern Iraq in 527, or the relentless pursuit of those suspected of witchcraft from the Middle Ages onwards, cruelty dispatched by men — often driven by their own fear — has been an all-too-common feature. Everything women have gained has been fought for and many have lost their lives doing so. All too rarely have men said (and meant it), “You know, we ought to do this for women, it’s the right thing.”
Literature and thought speaks volumes in this regard too. There are many examples but two stand out. Arthur Schopenhauer, revered as a philosopher of great influence, was responsible for a disgraceful diatribe, On Women (1851), in which he described women as “the second sex, inferior in every respect to the first.” He seemed to be forgiven all that, unsurprisingly, for all the other stuff. Near-fiction such as Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale bore a striking resemblance to many aspects of the former guy’s America, playing out four discrete, traditional roles for women: the subservient and mute Wives of leaders; Handmaids, perpetual birthing machines, selected and raped in what is disarmingly termed a “ceremony” for their fertility (prepared and trained by a few Aunts); and Marthas, the domestic servants. Victories were few and made little difference. Try mapping the roles to a modern organization. It’s disturbingly easy.
Women are schooled in subservience. It may be more subtle than when we used chalk, but it perpetuates. The expected behaviour harks back to a rhyme from eighteenth-century England depicting girls as made of “sugar and spice and all things nice.” They’re taught silence, manners and care. Roughness and grime are considered ‘unbecoming’ in the sense that girls will portray themselves as unsuitable partners. Bad behaviour in boys, meanwhile, is considered an essential part of the exploration of their masculinity and therefore tolerated within far wider, if non-existent, boundaries. A tolerance that survives into adulthood.
At a critical age in high school, girls often stop asking questions in class. This is particularly so in STEM subjects (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) as they’re regarded as male pursuits. All too often they drop them when the opportunity arises — in the UK just under 10% of graduates in any of the four are women. They’re directed instead toward more abstract, artistic options less likely to be relevant to forging a career.
The absence of women in the investment-rich technology field therefore is no surprise, plateauing over a decade at just 17% of the sector in the UK despite a huge push, and 25% in the USA. When they do arrive it’s no surprise that they’re greeted by male-dominated culture, causing twice as many women as men to leave the sector during the first year. All of which means that the technologies and services developed by such organisations are predominantly created and developed by men, for men. We’re all affected.
When out of education the prejudice continues. Research in 2018 showed that within the media, men are far more likely to be quoted as experts than women. Qualifications, experience and achievement are still not enough to counter an innate sense that men know what they’re talking about. Even if when sought, their views often have to be ‘mansplained’. A word, incidentally, that exists in multiple languages.
The opportunities are far from equal before we’ve even passed through the revolving door. We’ve already mentioned that male candidates are far more likely to be selected, including by women, given that women are questioned harder at interview, their achievements and credentials more likely to be doubted. The most telling bias results from that which we covered first — biology. While no-one expects a role to be filled forever, a recently married woman in her early 30s appears to the recruiter, however suitable for the role, a prime candidate for near future maternity absence. In a strange twist, due to the lack of awareness of the menopause a woman in her mid-40s is less likely to pose a conscious recruitment risk. With greater knowledge this will come.
The recruitment process is where the first instances reveal themselves of differing gender attitudes to identical behaviour, what are known as ‘prescriptive gender stereotypes’. For example, persistence in men, deemed ideally suited to advancing unpopular yet necessary change agendas or in challenging negotiations, is seen as pushiness in women, likely to irritate and alienate.
While it works in reverse too, the problem faced by women is that those characteristics deemed inherently feminine — cooperation, warmth, sensitivity, inclusiveness — aren’t those associated with a historically prevalent male view of leadership. Men exhibiting such behaviours are similarly prejudiced and so strain to avoid doing so. Instead of accentuating their difference, women are often drawn to emulate men in order to succeed. But where they seek to emulate forceful male behaviour as a conscious choice, believing that to win they need to play the male game, they’re often penalised. It’s a no-win.
Male attributes haven’t proven themselves especially viable and are unworthy of their continuing dominance. According to a study published in 2020 in Harvard Business Review, female leaders showed themselves to be far more adept at handling the Covid-19 pandemic than men, with inspiration, motivation, communication, collaboration and relationship building emerging as key skills required by the situation, and those in which women often demonstrated an inherent superiority. The drive to equality demands that all leaders display the characteristics required to be successful, irrespective of gender. Which means re-appraising those characteristics deemed desirable for managerial and leadership roles. For the time being, despite mounting evidence, the stereotypes still present a baked-in barrier to women.
On a day-to-day basis, women also have to manage the threat of predatory male behaviour. Carefully constructed careers, honed over decades, can be destroyed in the rejection of an unwarranted advance from a senior male colleague. Where such drastic outcomes are avoided, reputations can be tarnished, credibility undermined. This can be the result of pursuit or of resistance, the manifestation of a personalised species-threat.
While such dangers can lurk in plain sight within the sobriety of the daytime office, there’s nothing to compare with the severely diminished personal space of an after-hours alcohol-fuelled social for full-bore danger. That’s before we’ve got into the plethora of networking events entirely geared to male participation — spectating at sporting events (and drinking) or partaking at sports demanding of no particular physical prowess such as golf (and drinking afterwards). The dilemma for women is that such occasions are often where beneficial contacts are made and ideas hatched, and so to avoid them can be counterproductive. Run the gauntlet or miss out, there’s no easy path for women to take.
Having put up with all the crap we’ve identified so far, women then find at the end of the week or month, depending on the nature of the role, their compensation is inferior to men. In the UK the gender pay gap (‘the difference between average hourly earnings of men and women as a proportion of men’s average hourly earnings, excluding overtime’) for all employees stands at just over 15%. For those under 40 the gap is close to zero — but fewer women move into senior management roles after this age where the pay gap widens considerably. There are, however, positive signs of this divide narrowing.
When it’s all done — career, children, menopause and the battle with the prejudice associated with each — and a life of leisure beckons, retirement dishes women an even more measly share than the pay in their later years reflected. The UK pension gender gap (the percentage difference in pension income for female pensioners compared to male pensioners) stands at 40.3%. At this stage of life there’s no recourse.
Career breaks for children and care penalise women unduly in this regard. Beyond those mentioned so far, there’s a second coming for nappies (the smell of which never leaves us), albeit much larger ones, and another threat to career continuity. In later years (40+) women are twice as likely as men to need to give up work to take on a full-time caring role. While they may work while caring — full or (more probably) part time — the societal expectation is of women as carers. It’s a thread that keeps on running.
Having navigated this far, wither opportunity? Organisations can effectively manage each of the challenges faced by women, should they wish to. Yet to be able to claim that opportunities are equal requires that they demonstrate success in each. An organisation can’t actually be an equal opportunities employer if it simply has a program with this aim. Or a badge. Nor can it claim to be when it doesn’t. Which means a tiny proportion are.
Women are increasingly carving successful careers and finding senior roles, seizing on or creating opportunities. They’re achieving this in a manner learned over many thousands of years: a combination of determination and innate character and skill. If it were up to men to decide, given their sense of entitlement, but for those very few who actively work to redress this ingrained inequality, little would change. Fortunately, it’s increasingly not. However, ‘proximity bias’ — an emerging feature of many ‘hybrid’ post-Covid organisations — threatens to stall or even reverse this advance for office-based women. They’re deemed more likely to be the parent that ‘chooses’ to remain at home to take care of children and domestic duties while their male partners escape to the comparative serenity of an all-adult environment.
Separating gender equality from the other eight characteristics, we may believe achieving equality to be impossible enough in isolation. Any of the others would have had a similar number of challenges. Yet when we consider the intersectionality — where individuals appear across several characteristics — we begin to understand the scale of the problem. We look at the single equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) role that’s been created in many organisations and understand that it’s woefully short a commitment to even begin to consider how to dismantle the stubbornly ingrained and resistant levels of historical, institutional and shameless prejudice. All progress is to be celebrated, but if we’re to un-f*ck it we can’t wait for tiny increments. There’s still a long, long way to go.
Having evaluated equality through the lens of gender, we do have to consider whether opportunities exist at all. Most organisations have more talent than they can grow and develop, and fewer opportunities than they can satisfy. The bottleneck breeds frustration and despondency, often turning intelligence toward negativity and deviance as it searches for an outlet. It requires conscious initiative to open channels and to equip colleagues to move through them, rather than lethargically awaiting a departure to ensure a transition. It means forgetting the rigid structure of the organisation and the formality of its roles and finding expansive challenges where perhaps they were not considered. It necessitates proactivity, driving change rather than awaiting it. Fitting the opportunity to the talent and motivation, rather than the traditional opposite. We can only imagine the frustration of making huge strides to eliminate inequality and having no means for those free of its constraints to progress. While equality precedes opportunity, they need one another.
For most organisations, equality is a distant goal. Some have made significant strides toward it. Yet its achievement is often not solely in the gift of the organisation. Embedded and solidified attitudes aren’t something that can be resolved around a whiteboard. Biases are conscious and unconscious. We’ve become distracted with the complexities of the latter while the former perpetuate, even flourish. To claim to offer equal opportunities simply cannot be true. Instead, our statement becomes:
“We’re striving to become an equitable organisation”
It’s not just about opportunities — that’s one aspect. It’s day-today practices, relations and respect. So, we’ve replaced the phrase ‘equal opportunities’ with ‘equitable’. If the organisation is making progress toward equality, then opportunities will be easier to identify and create, and will flow accordingly. It may still need to proactively ensure they are created, but the task becomes far easier, and the outcome more rewarding for all.
The complexities and interdependencies are significant. It’s not just about being an employer, either — there will be many transient yet closely related people who will pass through an organisation who deserve to be treated equally. Appointing one person and making them responsible is a start — but it’s down to us all. We’re all involved, We’re all responsible.
There are three complementary means to un-f*ck the dismal landscape of inequality in our workplaces. These are over and above the plans, projects, initiatives, ED&I roles and dubious externally published claims to having a handle on it.
The first is awareness. There’s still far, far too little. It’s not something a few sanitised posters and a one-day externally facilitated course will resolve. If we all understood the scale and detail of what faced us there would have been no need for this illustration. Too much of what we do know is either inherently unstructured, targeted at particular interests or pressing matters, or like jelly in a bag where we squeeze one part and another bulges. It begins to resemble four-dimensional chess when we consider the intersectionality of all types of inequality, legislated for and omitted. Tracing the issues to create this short essay involved time and focus but was by no means beyond tax on a normal intellect.
With awareness we’re facing the issue of whether we want to know. Just as an organisation must want to create equality. It can seem someone else’s problem, or just too mammoth a subject to even begin. The ‘will to knowledge’ therefore needs strengthening. Rather than broadcast, most of which won’t land amid the daily corporate digital tsunami, we do this through scenario play. Where we’re not disadvantaged by inequality, we have to be placed in a hypothetical situation where it could be us. We have to prompt empathy and understanding. It’s emotional immersion we need, not training. It’s only by experiencing inequality, feeling the injustice it sustains, that we’ll understand it. And when we understand it, we’ll want to do something about it.
Second, therefore, is to create a wave of activism. There’s a huge difference between being ‘not’ something (a passive position) and being ‘anti’ something (the taking of action). We find ourselves in double negative territory — being anti-inequality — rather than pro-equality. It’s because we’re opposing something, we’re demanding and seeking change. Inequality is the embedded, institutionalised problem we must take down to reveal equality. The raising of awareness has to pose the question — what is it we can do to contribute? And then — what are we going to do?
Finally, from the driving of awareness and prompting and sustaining of activism, we need to share stories of achieving equality. That is, all stories, positive and negative, freely and without accusation, across all areas of inequality and not just those subject to current focus. Our own world, our limited experiences are insufficient to ensure that we learn quickly enough, for we have much ground to cover. They cannot be weaponised or used to hold our colleagues to account. Where we’re unsighted, haven’t considered the ramifications of our action or inaction, where we forget ourselves, we need to know. Perhaps this even prompts starting every meeting or interaction with sharing such stories, while ensuring that there’s an accessible and evolving repository for our learning. For leaders and managers will need to relinquish all control over such stories, seeing them as the collective property of the organisation even where they’re attached in some way to themselves. It’s important not to anonymise them, too, helping build safety within an organisation.
Equality belongs to us all.
This post is an abridged chapter from my latest book Unf*cking Work, published by Zer0 Books and available from all good booksellers — and most crap ones, too. All reviews, critical or otherwise, massively appreciated.