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In twenty first century Britain, it’s still true that far more men than women have leading roles in many organisations.
If you ask women to explain this – as many researchers have – women point to workplace culture. At Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, a study found 38 per cent of the all-female graduates listed this culture as a major bar to their success – far more than the 22 per cent who saw the problem as relating to combining work and family.
Murray Edwards has published a new report on changing workplace culture, highlighting that women are not only talked over in meetings, but under-promoted, passed over for jobs they are far more qualified for and told consistently to be ‘more like men’ in order to progress.
Much research has been done and methods developed to find ways forward that focus on women’s behaviour, but amazingly very little research has been done into how men might actually take their responsibilities in this area seriously.
We need to move away from trying to ‘improve’ women, and work on the ways that men, often unintentionally, stymie women’s careers. Businesses, institutions and organisations quite simply work better when their entire workforce is properly utilised. As men, we need to get our act together.
There are some very simple things we can act on. The key thing is that this isn’t just about processes. Each of us, in our own environment and work place, can make a difference, and should be making that difference. There are practical solutions to problems that women face, and we should start to take this personally.
It’s all very well an organisation looking diverse – but if it isn’t actually diverse, then what’s the point? If we’re not getting the best out of people, then we are failing. We wouldn’t accept that in any other part of life – so why do we accept it when it comes to working with women? It’s time to stop telling women what they should do, how they should change, and face facts.
I was talking to a friend of mine who is an academic – just last week she was told, by another female academic, that she should ask more questions because there should be ‘more female voices’ in the room. But why should she? Because that makes men take women more seriously?
We tell people to ‘be themselves’ at work, to show integrity, yet ultimately it seems we are pressuring women to be something different. My friend didn’t want to ask a question for its own sake – she wanted to wait to ask something useful, something that reflected her considerable academic ability. Would she have been told to ask any old question for its own sake if she were a man? Certainly not. Our culture is toxic, and we need to change it.
There are several things we can do. Firstly, we can take responsibility, and realize that constantly telling women what they should do is simply abrogating responsibility. And we can take action. We can actually ask women what it is about the workplace that makes it difficult for them and come up with joint solutions.
We can conduct mixed gender power audits, which are means of identifying where, what and how decisions are made.
We can take definitive action to establish networking that doesn’t revolve around our own narrow interests, and recognize that our networks often exclude eminently qualified and excellent people, women included, who would, quite simply, make our organisations better.
We can be aware ourselves, and make others aware, of when we interrupt, and give credit where credit is due. Leaders can encourage men who think gender equality is important – not least, because it is.
These things might seem small – particularly in the light of big changes that can be made in processes and policies. But it’s the culture that actually makes a difference, and we, as men, have a responsibility to play our part, in practical ways. We need to learn to listen carefully, rather than demand women speak differently. We need to open our eyes and see this is not, ultimately, solely a ‘women’s issue’ – this is desperately, and urgently, important for us all.
Read: Collaborating with men - Changing workplace culture to be more inclusive for women
Charlie Bell is the post-doctoral Bye fellow in medicine at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge and co-chair of the BMA medical students committee
I loved reading this. I feel believed and 'validated' when men speak out for women. I just wish we had somebody to raise these important issues in medical school, and not just the workplace. As a female BME student from a low socio-economic background, I know a lot of inequality and the pressure female students face, but there is always a backlash when trying to bring up this matter!
Workplace cultures that you have suggested are definitely one of the many reasons for which often accidental sexism is carried out. I really enjoyed the article and likewise I assume to everyone reading, I believe intentional sexism or deliberate ignorance of sexism is and should be a crime. The ethical question I often find myself asking though is whether promoting legal (or in legislation) advantages to be afforded to target groups (in this case seen as women) such as extra incentives to apply for promotions in the workplace, set-aside education places or financial aid in education or employment; is in fact itself an act of sexism by advocating for a lack of equality at the highest hierarchical level between the target group and the rest of the population?
I congratulate all those who lend support to a raised awareness of such important issues as gender equality. Education that sexism exists is the best way to target future sexism however claims of discrimination need to always be evidence based. To my opinion the quantity of individuals from different genders/non-gender-identifying individuals employed/in university should reflect the demographic of those applying for positions. With regards to your story about not pressuring people into contribution to aid positive psychological perception of women. Interesting and I had never thought about it as I have never noticed a difference in contribution of women to men in any group task. I'm not entirely sure such gender-wide differences exist or can be assumed based on that 1 encounter but the pressuring to ask a question is indeed bizarre.
I liked your article and believe that people as a whole do need to take responsibility to have the adult integrity to reject sexism when carried out in front of them and to bring it up. Also very importantly, when they feel themselves to be victimised to do the same. Women are by no means defenceless and have the grounds and capacity to resolve any sexist situation. I believe sexism is truly common at individual levels and needs to be dealt with at all individual levels regardless of the gender of those intervening.