“Where are all the Women?”- A Panel Discussion on Women in the Workplace

My formative years were spent in an all-girls secondary school with strong feminist values, and I was surrounded by teachers and classmates who took it as a given that women are strong, independent and capable. We were encouraged to strive for success and pursue our dreams, and so while many elements of the world struck me as unfair, sexism didn’t actually affect my student life all that much. Sadly, by the time I got to university, lad culture began to dominate the landscape, and the patriarchy started pushing itself in my face a little more. But although I hated the unequal gender relations I perceived, hated the bawdy jokes, the groping and grinding, and the predominance of male voices all over campus, I didn’t really see it as an obstacle to my success. After all, I was achieving good grades; assignments and exams were marked anonymously, so apart from bouts of feminist ranting to my family and friends, I still (very naïvely) saw it as purely a social issue, with not much impact on my path through life, or the possibilities that would be available to me.

Entering the working world was really what ignited my proper feminist awakening. I got a job in management at the trainee level, and suddenly, nothing was objective anymore. My success in the role was, in effect, measured by how much influence I could obtain, and I felt that nothing I did could be separated from my race and gender. Despite my good performance, senior managers would tease me, flirt with me, baby me and patronize me, in a way they never did with my fellow male trainees. Even the employees did this. I noticed the female senior managers getting the same treatment, and observing them, I realized that they had two options – play along, and gain a reputation for being nice (but be walked all over and lose control over the team), or be firm and effective (but be hated and called a bitch behind their backs). My increasing frustration with the situation galvanized me to discover more about the feminist movement, and I began raring to take action for change.

Of course, there is so much more to feminism than the issue of women in the workplace. Yet, addressing the poor representation of women in the workforce and in positions of power (politics, academia, the public sector, the media, business, etc) is critical to raising the profile of women in society, and making our voices heard. So last Wednesday, I was excited to attend “Where Are All the Women?”, a panel discussion hosted by the British Academy and The Culture Capital Exchange, designed to talk about pertinent issues holding women back in their careers today.

Chaired by the excellent Bidisha, the panel consisted of successful women like Rachel Millward (founder of Bird’s Eye View), Cressida Dick (Assistant Commissioner, London Met), and Professor Vicki Bruce, among others. A great deal of ground was covered over the course of the evening, from the shockingly low statistics of women’s representation in the film industry and FTSE 100 boards, to the question of maternity leave, to the devaluation of women’s work in the home, to the rigid gender roles society expects us to inhabit from a very young age. I’ll just pick out two points that I particularly liked-

Talking about the importance of any institution’s or industry’s image in attracting people to join them, Prof Vicki Bruce gave us an anecdote about her experience at the University of Edinburgh. Walking in, she noticed the walls covered with portraits of eminent people in the university’s history – and they were all white men. Of course, this was an accurate representation of their history rather than outright misogyny, but, as Vicki argued, the message that the university was sending out through this display, and the effect it might have on making people feel welcome (or not), was significant. She lobbied hard for change, and finally, the university responded by commissioning, and displaying, photographs of recent honorary graduates, representing a diverse spectrum of people. I sincerely hope that all institutions follow suit; you can’t change the inequalities in your history, but you should definitely do all you can to make sure those inequalities are not perpetuated.

Another issue I was happy to hear about is society’s warped ideas of leadership and command. We all know what qualities are valued in a leader – assertiveness, (over)confidence, the ability to stand one’s ground without giving in. And too often, we mistakenly take these signs as evidence of capability. On the contrary, traits like compassion, gentleness, thoughtfulness, cooperativeness and carefulness are dismissed, when they should be paramount. As Deborah Mattinson pointed out, if our current world and business leaders had these traits, maybe banks wouldn’t have failed so spectacularly and our economy would be the better for it. Maybe we would stop funding wars and devastation, and concentrate on social services instead.

Which is why I was surprised and a little peeved towards the end of the event, when some members of the panel criticized women for not being assertive enough, even gently mocking their own polite, turn-taking manner of discussion that evening. There was talk of how men were generally aggressive during debates, with women being unable to get a word in, and how we needed to step up, start putting ourselves forward and make our views known. On one hand, I agree that we have a problem with women’s lack of confidence and unwillingness to speak up, brought about through a lifetime of cultural conditioning. I agree that women too often discount their own opinions and are too quick to apologize for their views, and that we need to tackle this. But I am strongly against the idea that we should aspire to debate the way men do. The panelists may have made fun of their own politeness, but I actually found this to be one of the strengths of the discussion. As chair, Bidisha did an excellent job, and there was a high level of respect among the group, even when they disagreed. Most importantly, they listened to one another, considered one another’s ideas and had a genuine discussion, while at the same time opening it up to enable us to have our own thoughts on the matter. And by doing this, they avoided the most serious flaw in most (male-dominated) debates, which is viewing it as a competition. I have watched far, far too many discussions where the participants’ aim is not to discuss the issue or to learn from others to advance their own ideas, but to win at all costs. They interrupt, raise their voices and talk over each other; they are combatants, and changing their own mind or agreeing with something the other party has said is not to be thought of. Does either party learn anything except how to be more aggressive in future? How productive has it been? So I’m all for encouraging women to be more confident in expressing their ideas, but I also think that the male model of ‘discussion’, ‘argument’ and ‘debate’ desperately needs to change.

All in all, I’m glad that this discussion took place, and even happier that the organizers had to switch to a larger venue due to the overwhelming response. We urgently need to make such issues part of the wider national conversation, and until we achieve political, economic and social parity, we just won’t shut up.