It’s not just women who should “lean in” – the rest of world needs to too

Today is International Women’s Day – a celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It sees people across the world standing up and celebrating women’s accomplishments and also calling for gender equality.

Over the years through the campaigning actions of women and men we have seen a range of laws passed to advance gender equality in all areas. Whether it’s the UK Equal Pay Act that was passed in 1970; the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1993; or the creation of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in 2010, it is clear that the world over people are standing up for equality.

Inscribing gender equality into law is a very important step. It demonstrates recognition from political powers that the cause is important and should be tackled. However, laws are but words on a piece of paper. It is enforcement of laws through action that creates change and this is the other half of International Women’s Day. The campaign recognises that there is still a lot of work to be done and this year’s campaign theme – #PledgeForParity – is encouraging more people from across the world to take action and stand up as “champions of gender parity”.

It’s the ways things are… WRONG!

Some people argue that gender inequality is just the way things are. Men and women are different, they will never be equal. Equality is not necessarily sameness and this is important to understand. Men and women approach tasks differently, they learn differently, young girls and boys play differently – it is true men and women are not the same, but that doesn’t mean they should be unequal.

Historian Amanda Foreman’s recent BBC documentary series The Ascent of Woman chartered women’s history from the dawn of civilisation to the present day, and one example she pointed to was the case of Çatalhöyük, a settlement in Turkey dating back to about 7500BC. In Çatalhöyük men and women lived on a pretty equal footing. Everything was shared equally, it was a communal settlement where men and women lived and worked together, they ate similar diets, they shared work equally and they lived in similar houses. It’s not until you get a few thousand years into the future that gender imbalance begins to appear. The reason for that is long (and very interesting) but not something I can cover at this time. The point Dr. Foreman is making is that gender imbalance, patriarchy if you will, is not something people are born with, it is human made – and something that is made, can be unmade.

The campaign for equality

We’ve certainly started unmaking gender inequality but there is still work to be done and encouraging people to raise their voices in support of gender equality is a key part of International Women’s Day. The aspects of the gender debate, and the campaigns surrounding it, cover a broad range of issues. Here are just a few:

  • The gender pay gap
  • Violence against women
  • Differing standards with regards to appearance between genders
  • Ageism and gender
  • Differing standards and attitudes with regards to work and education
  • Access to education
  • Gendered valuation of professional sports
  • Differing standards with regards to fidelity and relationships
  • Challenging gendered roles and stereotypes
  • Maternity and paternity leave entitlement/Childcare costs
  • Race and gender

As is clear from the above, it’s not a small debate. What is making the situation more acute is that in 2014 the World Economic Forum said it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity in terms of wages. Just one year later they estimated that a slow had already taken place and that gender parity would not occur until 2133 – an increase of 38 years.

Ouch! Your glass ceiling just hurt my head

I recently attended a seminar entitled “What next for feminism?” The guest of honour was former Director of Policy Planning for the US Government, Anne-Marie Slaughter. For those of you unfamiliar with Slaughter, she caused a storm in 2012 when she penned “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for The Atlantic.

Anne-Marie argued “that in order to achieve full gender equality we need to focus less on getting women to the top jobs and more on valuing the work that women have traditionally done. The work of care. The work of investing in other people.” By putting the value of care – whether that is care in the workplace or care in the home – on an equal footing you create a society that doesn’t penalise women (and men I should add) for wanting to take parental leave, for wanting to clock off at 5.30pm to look after their family. A society that recognises the value in all skills – be they “feminine” skills or “masculine skills” – equally. By valuing all roles we play in life equally, men and women become equal, and this, argues Slaughter is the next stage of feminism today. In its simplest form, it’s about breaking traditional gender stereotypes – for both sexes.

The tech sector

Being from the technology team at H+K, it makes sense that I now turn my attention to the technology industry with regards to gender equality. It’s no secret that the industry is one sector that suffers proportionately more in this area. According to the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Survey, across all levels the tech industry has a 17% female workforce. This goes up to about a third when you look at junior roles, and plummets to 5% when you look at female CEOs. 19% are board members, the second lowest percentage per industry according to the survey – the lowest is the mobility sector at 17% – so still in the technology industry.

The gender gap in the technology industry is one of the most widely reported on. Why is this? Common sense says the domination of the technology industry in wider business terms has drawn attention to the gender gap. Coverage of Silicon Valley darlings, life changing technologies, and the focus placed on technology as an economic driver makes it unsurprising that the industry’s gender balance also receives attention. Other contributing factors to the attention it receives could be the widely reported issues of sexism that have occurred, such as #GamerGate, the “women shouldn’t ask for raises” incident, and of course the infamous tech conference “Booth Babe”.

I am not saying that the tech industry is the last bastion of male chauvinism. Incidents like these happen across all industries. For example, at the same event where I heard Anne-Marie Slaughter speak, Sky News presenter Afua Hirsch spoke of a colleague (not from Sky News), who had been informed she was “eating herself off the air”. There is also the huge disparity in value placed on women’s professional sports. The England Women’s Football team made it to the World Cup semi-finals last year, and while there was more coverage of this event than in previous years, it paled in significance when compared to the attention the men’s World Cup receives. Let’s also not forget the over sexualisation and objectification of pretty much every woman in the music and film industry. And before I get accused of being one sided, I am fully aware men face gender bias issues as well, the topic for my next blog post maybe?

Before things get too negative, it makes be happy to say that technology companies the world over are standing up and recognising that they need to do more to achieve gender parity. For example, Tata Communications has its ‘Women at Work’ initiative, a professional network that has been set up by female employees and encourages networking, hosts leadership workshops and encourages gender equality. Similarly, last year the company partnered with MasterCard on the ‘Next3B’ campaign that aimed to provide 100 million women with mobile technology over the next five years.

In 2014, Box, Facebook and Pinterest teamed up to create the WEST (Women Entering and Staying in Tech) initiative. It is a mentorship programme that provides 1:1 mentorship for women in the early to middle stages of their technology careers, providing them with the direct support they need to build a rewarding career. Let’s also not forget SAP, the first technology company in the US to be awarded the Economic Dividends for Gender Equality (EDGE) certificate in recognition of its commitment to gender equality in the workplace.

There are many more initiatives, too many to cover here, and technology companies (and companies generally) across the world are putting in place the mechanisms to increase gender parity in the workplace. These are the kinds of actions that are needed, alongside the (legal) words I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

On to 2133... Or earlier preferably

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook argued in her celebrated book Lean In that women are holding themselves back, adhering to current social expectation, lacking assertiveness and settling into the roles that society has been carved out for them over the last 7000 or so years (see the above Çatalhöyük point), and she is, in part, right. Women cannot just sit back, they need to challenge the status quo, to demand that their voices are heard on an equal footing with their male counterparts, but you can’t entirely place the responsibility on women themselves. The responsibility lies with society, culture, men, women, junior staff, managers, CEOs, mothers, fathers – everyone! As Anne-Marie Slaughter argues it lies with revaluing the different roles men and women play in society. It won’t be today, and it won’t be tomorrow, but hopefully, it will be sooner, much sooner, than 2133.

Zoe Hawthorne

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search