Earlier this week the Sex and Power 2013 report was published with depressing stats showing that women have very little influence in UK decision-making. Middle-aged middle-class white men run our political and public organisations. This gender imbalance carries over into business and despite efforts at redressing it we haven’t made much progress in the last decade. I want to take a stand on this but it feels risky. I think men and women both are confused by the debate and lack the confidence to take a stand for fear of getting it wrong or failing and then being criticised.
Just this week Channel 4 presenter Cathy Newman highlighted the need for greater representation of women in parliament with reference to sexism and sexual abuse in Westminster and beyond. Newman’s report, and particularly her questioning of Nick Clegg was met with a sexist response (see photo). This is why women are afraid to speak out and take a stand about sexism.
Where do you stand on feminism?
Feminism is not an easy subject to discuss without causing disagreement. Everybody has a different view on what should be done to bring women into a position of parity with men. For the first decade of my working career I basically ignored the issue because it was too difficult to tackle without alienating friends and colleagues that I wanted on my side for professional reasons.
Caitlin Moran changed my mind when she cut the crap in her book How to be a Woman and bravely said:
“a) Do you have a vagina? and
b) Do you want to be in charge of it?
If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”
If you accept that you are a feminist what are you supposed to do about it? Moran says “I want a Zero Tolerance policy on All The Patriarchal Bullshit.” Well that’s great but what can the average woman do if she doesn’t have 375,000 followers on Twitter or plans to publish books on the topic?
How should organisations move toward equality?
Recommendations from the Sex and Power 2013 report are a useful place to start. The report called for consideration of “positive action measures in selection processes.” This means you should nominate women to stand for election. In the workplace it means you should encourage women to apply for jobs. It means making sure you have shortlisted women so that you are certain to consider a woman for the role.
The Sex and Power report also suggested implementing the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference Report on Parliamentary Representation, which called for a number of measures. I like this one in particular: “Public sector organisations should encourage the development of the next generation of leaders by appointing members of under-represented groups to supernumerary positions on boards and other bodies. This should be aimed at enabling people to gain the skills and experience they need to equip them to take up positions of influence.” This works for businesses as well. Women with potential can be selected to sit on management boards or committees to learn about decision-making and leadership in the company.
What can an individual woman do?
I asked what the ‘average woman can do’ because a lot of the actions required are for people in positions of power. One of Moran’s recommendations is for any women to take on: “It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. Virtually invisible. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.” As a woman, you can lead by example and be outstanding in your field or occupation showing others how it’s done.
I’ve recently decided to send a stronger message to the women I work with and propose that my organisation starts a Women’s Network. It’s still in the concept phase but I’ve suggested a clear purpose: to give women the skills, support and confidence to take on leadership positions. I researched this idea on the internet before making the proposal but there wasn’t a lot of guidance available. To a certain extent I feel like I’m making it up as I go along. Has anybody done something similar with good results to share? I’m hopeful that a step like this will make a lot of small impressions that will add up to a big impact.
Cathy Newman’s post ‘Sexism is still rife in Westminster and beyond’
House of Commons Speaker’s Conference Report on Parliamentary Representation (This has a good summary of the debate. Especially page 52 on quotas.)
Moran, Caitlin, ‘How to be a Woman‘, Ebury Press, 2011.