Back to Work: the changing position of women in the workplace
The first week of the New Year saw the vast majority of the UK’s workforce return to work. For the many women employed in businesses across the country, the numerous high profile examples of gender discrimination in the workplace throughout last year would be better left in 2015. Let’s start with the gender pay gap, estimated by the Fawcett society to be at 14%; the reaction towards Rachel Reeves, branded a ‘stupid woman’ for announcing she would continue her political career while pregnant; the patronising tweets aimed at the England Women’s football team, who were to resume their apparently more important role as ‘mothers, partners and daughters’ after reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup. I could go on and list more of the assumptions, prejudices and examples of downright discrimination continually aimed at women in all professions. But I don’t want to.
Instead, I want to find out firsthand if attitudes towards women in the workplace have progressed at all. Who better to ask than my own mum, who left school at 16 to work full-time and has witnessed some of the landmark decisions in women’s employment history: the Sex Discrimination Act, the Equality Act and the election of the UK’s first female prime minister. My mum started her career as a distribution and logistics trainee, on the path to becoming senior manager of a busy warehouse processing orders and deliveries for stock across the country.
She was the first woman to hold many a managerial role in this area at the first major company she worked for. At one point, her official job title was even ‘foreman’ which, for her, highlighted the momentous task ahead: the constant need to prove herself in a male-dominated environment.
I start with a general all-encompassing question: what was it really like working in that environment? She responds immediately, detailing the most blatant acts of discrimination she faced. Under the company she initially worked for, as a single woman her mandatory pension contributions would be worth nothing. A single man, on the other hand, could choose to designate these funds to whomever he pleased. I hear of her refusal and later begrudging acceptance of such a discriminatory policy after threats of forced dismissal.
Aside from these blatant acts of discrimination, she also describes the hostility she faced as a female manager. A male finance director once remarked, ‘I’m not so sure I could do this, working for a woman. I suppose I could if I fancied her.’ She gladly acknowledges that these attitudes, for the most part, are no longer a reality. However, she asserts that this is due to women excelling in previously male-dominated positions. Women in business are no longer a novelty.
Whilst general attitudes towards women in the workplace may have changed, the problems women face with regards to maternity leave and securing affordable childcare remain a formidable barrier to their achievements. My mum remembers her commitment to her job being called into question when she could no longer attend company meetings. These meetings, which could have been rescheduled to suit every employee’s needs, were held all over the country and required extensive travelling at early hours of the morning, making securing childcare impossible. Not content with dismissive comments, a boss once directly asked if my mum was pregnant in a meeting. My mum looks visibly uncomfortable at this memory, ‘But what do you say to that?’
These revelations are made all the more shocking by the fact that they are still commonplace. The laws around maternity and parental leave protect women, yet in many companies these laws are frequently viewed as open to interpretation, or worse, as a ‘damned inconvenience’ as someone once commented to my mum.
For further advances to be made, my mum advocates not only further allocation and promotion of women in influential positions but a top led culture change. I wholeheartedly agree, having gained firsthand experience working at a major construction firm, another traditionally male-dominated field. Whilst interviewing members of staff, despite my marked use of gender-neutral pronouns to describe project managers or engineers, many male members of staff exclusively used the male pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’. This was also despite having women employed in both of these positions at their own company. Whilst this is incomparable to the open hostility my mum once faced, it is still concerning that women remain subconsciously excluded by people’s language.
If in 2016 we learn from women’s firsthand negative experiences in the workplace and implement steadfast commitments to a change in culture and childcare provisions, we may reach the position my mum hopes for me, ‘I hope that there is no reason for you to feel there is a gender difference. I want you to be completely and truly confident in your own abilities.’