In 1970, the UK passed its landmark ‘Equal Pay Act’ after a hard won campaign by the female workforce of a factory in Dagenham who, after realising that they were being paid 15% less than their male counterparts, organised a debilitating strike. The legislation was significant, not just because it helped to fairly compensate female workers, but because it continued to affirm the equal value of women in a society designed for men.
Yet equality is elusive. Though the progress of women’s standing in the workplace is undeniable, there is no reason to be complacent with our current work culture – even when it is ‘equal’ in writing. As it happens, ‘equal pay’ is very hard to enact in practice, because it requires a concrete definition of equal work. If, culturally, men’s work is still felt to be worth more than women’s, then we can justify them earning more. Aside from hourly-paid and minimum wage jobs, which often have male and female workers filling a very similar role, it is particularly hard to find scenarios where we can measure what ‘equal work’ is because men and women tend towards different roles in organisations, even with similar job titles.
Understanding The Gender Pay Gap
The fight for workplace equality is now, then, on very different grounds. We know there is a discrepancy in earnings between men and women – the ‘wage gap’ – but the cause is not simple. We can look at several reasons why this might be the case. For example, the gap in earnings might be because:
- Men are more likely to ask for, and receive, promotions than women.
- Traits more typically associated with men i.e. confidence, forcefulness, intimidation, pragmatism, are valued greater by corporations than traits associated with women such as compassion, agreeableness and subservience.
- Women are relegated roles that are less conducive to advancement within the organisation.
- Women are seen as a liability by companies because they might have children, and are typically expected to put their career on hold when having a baby while the fathers continue working as usual. This is a complex issue because many women do want children and are happy to put their career on hold while they raise them, while corporations may use this as an excuse to discriminate against all of their female employees.
- Women are generally drawn to career paths which have lower earnings. This might be because of how they are conditioned, or because they have been intimidated by male-dominated fields, or because they naturally have different interests to men.
- Women’s career advancement is often stifled by workplace culture.
This should begin to highlight the complexity of sexism that is at the heart of workplace politics, and suggest that the issue of wage gap is at least partly an issue of discrimination. However, there is thread common to all of these issues: the impact of language.
Language and Children
What are we talking about when we talk about ‘social conditioning?’. It is many things, but chiefly
This is a contentious and hotly debated issue. But how does it relate to careers and office politics?
Lets think about what happens while girls are still at school. They are at a crucial stage in their development as people, where their interests, aspirations and personalities are beginning to be etched into stone. Yet, in the run up to deciding what subjects they want to take, what they want to study at university, what career path will suit them, they are heavily influenced, often subconsciously, by a number of factors:
- The female role models in their lives, particularly the direct ones such as their mother and teachers.
- How they are described by adults, and to a lesser, degree, by their cohorts. Are they a high achiever? Somebody who is caring? Pretty?
- The media they are presented with. Gendered advertisements and TV characters, celebrities and external authority figures.
- How are they perceived by other girls, and by boys.
- The attitude towards female roles in their family, school and local community. Online attitudes they are presented with. Attitudes towards women in further education and beyond.
Consequently, the language we use around girls can influence their development, and ultimately their choices. When we say something is a woman’s job or a girly hobby we are placing restrictions on what it means to be female. There’s no reason to suppose that go on to study subjects such as Physics, Maths, IT and Business at A level than boys merely because they are naturally inclined towards the humanities, and away from ‘rational’ subjects. How we talk about, how we describe these subjects and their related fields, matters. Yet it is tricky because these fundaments to our language are
We also have to contend with seemingly innocuous phrases such as ‘man up’ or ‘you do x like a girl’. This is to say nothing of the epidemic of demeaning language targeted towards girls in schools: a government found that 71% of pupils between the ages of 16-18 had heard terms such as ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ used towards girls on a regular basis.
Power Imbalance In The Workplace
Unfortunately, whether sexist language is overt or subtle, intended or not, it does not disappear as teenagers become adults and enter the ‘civilised’ world of work. While we can expect children to lack social graces, there is no excuse for working adults, especially when they claim to be believe in equality. Honestly, many of them probably do believe in a very reductive definition of equality.
There is a particular dissonance because formally almost every company claims they will not tolerate sexism – in accordance, of course, with our laws that require this in no uncertain terms – and yet sexist language, harassment, intimidation and discrimination is ubiquitous. According to a study by the charity Young Women’s Trust 40% of women felt their organisation was sexist, while 33% felt they had faced discrimination of some kind.
I think the crux of the issue is the difficulty in challenging cultural attitudes, especially within male-dominated spaces. We can perhaps restrict overt sexism with clear rules, training and an effective HR department, but language and the attitudes attached to them, can be very difficult to police.
This is the great challenge of workplace culture now. With it comes a series of difficult questions:
- When is a compliment acceptable, and should we avoid complimenting women on their looks altogether?
- Are all gendered dress codes sexist by nature? Should bosses avoid telling their female workers what to wear?
- In what conditions, if any, is flirting in the workplace acceptable?
- Does it matter what men (or women, for that matter) say amongst themselves?
- Should we ditch the denomination ‘Miss’ and use Mrs for all women, married or unmarried?
Ideas in this vein are controversial because they seem to strip away all nuance from gender dynamics, as well as, in the view of some, removing all enjoyment from workplace socialising.
The key issue is that inherent to many work environments is a power imbalance. We can understand now why it is inappropriate for a CEO to flirt with an intern, and how this scenario is completely different to the chemistry between two co-workers. Many apologists of casual misogyny rationalise their belittling comments as ‘just a bit of banter’, ‘well-meaning’ or ‘clearly a joke’ but this is not always clear from the perspective of the recipient – nor are they reciprocated.
For this reason we need to be sensitive to the comments we make and hear in the workplace. We should, where possible, challenge comments head-on in a coolheaded way, since offense can often be unintentional. Besides, those who make inappropriate comments often falter when asked to elaborate – it doesn’t take a complete rewiring of the brain for them to realise that they have said something extremely outdated.
Indeed, we would be remiss for excluding the biggest players in workplace inequality from the discussion: men. Feminists and other advocates against sexism know their fight will be futile without male allies, and besides, gendered language and toxic workplace culture affect them too.
‘Toxic masculinity’ is not a term weaponised against men, but an explanation of how rigid gender roles and expectations of men can negatively affect both sexes. There is no need to feel attacked by it, or by challenges to the status quo catalysed by Me Too; instead, we should use it as a springboard for opening up about how we feel.
Men are not destined to brutes, and no, boys will not just be boys if we foster environments that allow them to be something more. We can do this by speaking up, by asking others around us to speak up and by engaging in a dialogue in why this matters. Language will be our most powerful tool.