Women in Business, who needs them?

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by Patrick Condren Ph.D. CIO at Sysnet Global Solutions

Bet the headline got your attention, maybe even raised your blood pressure a bit! This is a blog that I thought would NEVER need writing, maybe 20 years ago, but not today. Not in our times.

From old movies, folklore and old books, we have all heard all of the old nutty things about women in the work place. Perhaps we even laughed at the phrases because they were ‘crazy’. ‘To emotional for a “man’s job”’, ‘Okay for the secretarial type jobs, or maybe nursing, or childcare, or certain roles in sales, or communications’. You would think that those days are over. I certainly had not given much thought to gender equality in the western world; I had assumed that the debate was long over. I wrongly assumed that we were all on a level playing field, but a few recent events sparked my interest and provoked me in to looking a little deeper.

What first sparked my research in to this was a few weeks back when one of the best leaders that I ever had met (Gayle Mateer) posted regarding a women’s ‘in business’ group that she attended, where the keynote guest speaker was Hillary Clinton. In reading about Hillary Clinton I was astonished at the ‘opinions’ directed at her. Why does Mrs Clinton spark such mixed reactions? Why do so many men have such a strong reaction to her? She is ultra-smart and successful, extremely qualified, politically adept and experienced. I understand that you may not like or agree with her political opinions, but the comments are all so personal! By all accounts and evidence she seems to be generous and dedicated to doing good for Americans, and the poor and underprivileged around the world. Is the animosity more a gender issue, than capability issue? Is she just ‘too big for her boots’ because she is female, or is it because she is not capable?

So I did a little research in to the topics discussed and the points being made about gender equality (by Mrs Clinton and others). Again I confess to being largely sceptical, I thought “surely all of this ‘noise’ is historical”. I read about the salary differences and the ‘glass ceiling’. Surely not, this must just be some legacy thinking! No, it is real. Even in the US where I imagined things are perhaps more ‘equal’ than elsewhere, not so. Have a look at the UN website and search on GII (Gender Inequality Index), it seems that gender discrimination is a global, and very present phenomenon, even in the ‘developed countries’. Women are clearly discriminated against on pay, violence against person, seniority of roles and society positions of power, and that is just in the west! The west where we pride ourselves on equality, democracy and fairness! In many other parts of the world you can add education and poverty to the list of ingrained discrimination. The data is there, Google can serve it up to you in seconds, not from pressure groups, but from the UN, governments and other reputable sources. If that is not enough to convince you, then do a quick search on gender inequality in the film industry; that data is every bit as startling.

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”, Edmund Burke.

If you do not think that it is OK, what are you going to do about it? I mean you specifically. A few things that you can do today… If you manage a team you can get a report that would give you insight in to the gender pay scale in your organisation. Start there. It may be that you pay men more, and that’s okay if it is fair, based on experience, role etc. It may be that you pay females more, also okay depending on the same criteria. What is not OK is if you are paying differently for the same thing, the only difference being gender. This quick check is something very practical that you can do today to make a difference. If you are in HR, maybe you could assist in a gender pay review, after all you guys are the guardians of this in industry, though we all need to take responsibility and ownership of it.

I do not believe that I am being sexist when I say that the opinions of women can often be different than those men, a different and valuable perspective. That difference can be the difference between success and failure. In my earlier career I had the pleasure of reporting to several female managers, and they patiently educated me on including ‘the people factor’ in my plans and considerations. From their guiding hands I learned the importance of multi-perspectives. That different view was hugely valuable to me then, and that coaching has stood me well ever since. A gift of honest opinion, especially if different from your own, is something to be treasured, but is so often not welcomed!

Ultimately, gender equality is important for more than just fairness. It is important to have the diversity in industry, to have the multiple opinions and perspectives at all levels. The majority of the population is female, it only seems right (and smart) to me that they should have a truly fair and equal say in all parts of society and business. It is so important in building the kind of society that we would want to live in, that we want our children to grow up in, and to thrive in. If you are a father (or grandfather) of girls, perhaps you can relate to this more if you think of it from the future that you feel is fair for your daughters, or granddaughters.

It feels wrong to me that I have to even make these points, but ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’.

The expectations of a female in the early years of adulthood are huge. There is an expectation that they will go to University (College), get a profession, develop a career, find a partner, build a home, have multiple children and take care of the education and nurturing of the children – all between early twenties and fortyish. Seriously, a small window in which we expect women to be all things to all people. It does not seem fair to me.

I still hear some people moan about maternity pay and time off! In some professions (like medicine) an intern female doctor is forced to move about the country or region every 6 months to progress her career. No thought, consideration or allowance is made for her family or children (if she has any). This means that many mature women avoid the profession, and those that do it at are hugely disadvantaged, compared to the men. Family considerations are put on hold, and if there are children they are uprooted every six months from schools and nurseries, or see their mother rarely. This has a profound impact on the children and mothers. Is that fair or right? This movement of people could be managed so much better, and all it would take is consideration and planning – simply understanding that the ‘old boys’ practice is discrimination. Being truly honest with ourselves, do we honestly believe that this stage of a doctor’s career has the same impact on a young male? This is just one example. Another quick one is the starting hours for your team (for the purpose of this blog I am going to assume women), is there something simple that you can do around starting time that would allow your female staff a bit more flexibility to deal with childcare (drop off and pick up)? Maybe come in early, leave earlier than normal. Perhaps use a late lunch to pick up the kids and finish the day working from home? I know it is not always possible, but it is normally more possible than we want to admit. In my team a few simple ‘accommodations’ allowed these parental duties to be shared between both parents. If this is the society that we want to build, if we are going to have these expectations on women, surely there is something that we can do to help! But that starts with each one of us proactively looking to see how we can help.

A final note, food for thought for women: I recently had a ‘heated discussion’ about allowing two admin staff to have reduced hours. Both were new mothers, and both were looking to share the same job, so 50% each. There would always have been one of them on ‘duty’. For Holidays each would have covered for the other, so the company would have had no extra cost, but have had 100% attendance. The women in question would have had the flexibility to tend to the children (their choice) and continue their careers. At some point later on they would have returned to work 100% when they and the company were in a position to make that extra role available. The ‘proposal’ was mine to keep two exceptional staff; the ‘heat’ was from HR. One HR professionals (female) actually said, “If we give it to them, everyone will want it”. Discrimination and understanding, building the kind of society that we all want and is more ‘humane’ will take more than just changes in attitude from men. As in all important things we will work better together, than by ignoring each other or the issue.