100 years of suffrage has lessons for gender equality in the workplace

Today it has been 100 years since the Representation of the People Act gave some women the vote and we couldn’t let this centenary go by without reflecting on its importance and relevance today for gender equality at work.
Birdsoup is only 1 year old, but our company exists because despite 100 years of suffrage for women, there is still a huge mountain to climb in terms of gender equality at work.

The good news is that important things are starting to happen

Over the past 2 years it has felt like a seismic shift is taking place. As we discussed in our previous blog Deeds not Words , a number of initiatives, whether grass roots or legislative, have taken centre stage. 2018 is set to be a high profile year for gender equality: the #metoo and Timesup movements continue to gain momentum, inspiring women everywhere to name and shame acts of sexual harassment. The gender pay gap is starting to be taken seriously by some organisations (but not all). Whilst the reporting system is not at all perfect, it has started to shake up the order of things and most importantly legitimise the issue for everyone.

These are all headline-grabbing initiatives, which have inspired millions to share their experiences or speak up. As the history of women’s suffrage shows, there are either women with a degree of power/access to power who work to change the system from within and there are those who use more unconventional tactics to make their voices heard – whatever the approach it lets other women know they are not alone and inspires action. And it is exactly the same today – to drive gender equality even further – we all need to push for the same goals whatever our methods.
At birdsoup, our focus is what happens within organisations and how this affects women’s careers

So what are we seeing and hearing?

There is a high level of awareness amongst businesses regarding gender equality and diversity and, as expected, some are doing more than others. There is a lot to change if a business truly wants to achieve meaningful gender equality and that is where some of the initiatives we have seen/come across fall down. We believe the main reason is this:

Gender equality will not be possible without organisational culture change

The culture-focused companies we have met are the ones who are really getting to grips with the issues around gender at work. It is definitely more challenging for long-established organisations to create whole-scale change but it is not impossible.
One thing we do know it this: it is not enough to set up a women’ s leadership programme and then expect the female talent pipeline to deliver!

As far as we see it, there are two key things that will shift gender equality in organisations:

  • Rejection of the idea that ‘if it’s not broken don’t fix it’. When it comes to changing a company’s culture no stone should be left unturned. Job design. There has been so much in the media about AI and the impact that robots will have on job roles but this isn’t the only reason re-designing jobs is important. We have talked about the concept of ‘part-time’ before. Many women work part-time and the evidence to shows that these kinds of jobs are often career limiting, providing limited responsibility and skill level and poor access to promotional opportunities.

Recruitment processes carry inherent bias.  Reviewing the language used in job advertisements and the methods used to select candidates can go some way to minimise the unconscious biases we all display.
Training needs – recent research by birdsoup discovered different training needs between men and women. In our survey of over 200 21-39 year olds working in the advertising, media and marketing industries 42% men preferred formal training courses vs. 21% of women and women wanted coaching. Both sexes however wanted a mentor.  The list goes on but there are practical changes that can be made to reduce our reliance on biases.

  • Listening. Corporate culture has traditionally operated on the principle of ‘he who shouts loudest be heard first’.

Therefore the idea that people who are happy to voice their opinions publicly are the better employees has stuck.  We’d like to think that this idea is old fashioned, but sadly a lot of the women (and some men) we meet still feel this is what they face at work. And this is what we mean when we talk about the behaviours valued by employers – listening is NOT often one of them. We feel it’s a hugely undervalued skill.  If you listen, you understand what is being said, show respect, give space to ideas and generally create a less aggressive working environment. Everyone should listen more and then perhaps more voices would be heard. Then more women will be heard.

‘Deeds not words’ was the battle cry of the suffragette movement.
We feel strongly that there has been enough talking and it is time to act. By deeds we mean action i.e. actually doing something. In this year, when we remember why it was so important for women to get the vote – we are calling for organisations to act, change something; work with their female employees to drive equality forward.

# ourtimenow #votes100 #Suffrage100

Photo by Søren Astrup Jørgensen on Unsplash