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    Are empowered women standing in the way of gender equality?

    Posted by Marie-Claude Gervais on 26-Jun-2018 22:30:09

    Many young women who describe themselves as feminists are actually undermining the drive for gender equality. They would be shocked and devastated to hear it, and it certainly seems counter-intuitive. Yet, that’s exactly what our research shows. Here’s what we've learned so far this year.

    The Gender Context

    Last April, a new clause of the 2010 Equality Act came into force. It requires public sector organisations and companies with 250 employees or more to make their gender pay gap public. Women looking for work can find out about the gender pay gap information of organisations they are interested in and factor this information into their decision to apply or not. Current female staff now know how their pay and that of their male colleagues compare. They can also discover how much better or worse their employer is doing compared to others in the same sector.

    Understandably, this new legal requirement is creating shockwaves. Organisations whose gender pay gap has just been exposed are trying various measures to address the fact that women earn less and progress less than men in the same organisation. They assume that women will be rightly incensed and they demand change.

    But when it comes to implementing some form of redress, the majority of the young women we spoke to strongly oppose positive action: the principle that allows an employer, when faced with two or more candidates of equal merit, to select a candidate from a ‘protected’ group (including women) that faces a disadvantage, or is under-represented in its workforce.

    Somehow, they find this an affront to their self-image as feminists. Precisely because they are educated, intelligent, strong willed women, they believe in their own power to achieve their professional goals. As a result, the most empowered young women tend to find positive action patronising. They think it undermines meritocracy. For them, it feels like a ‘leg up’ or ‘special advantage’. It jars with with their self-concept. ‘Sisters can do it for themselves’, you hear them say. These women do not experience themselves as a ‘minority’ in need of protection. As they see it: positive action may be acceptable for disabled people and ethnic minorities, but not for women.

    Let’s unpack this.

    It matters to understand why women push back against positive action because the disclosure of the gender pay gap information will only bring about greater equality if women grab hold of the evidence and seize the opportunity to support change. Otherwise, the gender pay gap legislation will only have been 2018’s news item, not the watershed moment women actually want and need.


    social research


    First of all, there is a reason why the law gives special protection to women, and that’s not because women are less capable. It’s because, historically, systems have been designed around the needs, values and aspirations of men (you might add older, white, straight, able-bodied, privileged men). Systems are stacked, therefore, in their favour. Individually, each one of the men in positions of power may be absolutely lovely. But their individual attitudes change little to the fact that the structures in place need to be redesigned to accommodate a more diverse workforce. Unless we think of equality - or its flipside, discrimination - in structural terms, and not just what goes on in face-to-face interactions between individuals, there will be little recognition of the need for change. The problem is, women (like most people from ethnic minority backgrounds, incidentally) do not think in terms of structural discrimination. As long as colleagues are not overtly sexist, women underestimate the extent of their disadvantage.

    Second, positive action is not about employing unsuitable candidates, just because a ‘diversity hire’ would reflect well on the brand and avoid a legal suit. It is not even mainly about correcting a historical wrong - though this is obviously very important. The main motivation for positive action is the simple fact that diverse teams are key business success. There is now plenty of evidence to show that diverse organisations outperform homogenous ones. They have greater staff retention. They are more collaborative and innovative. They make better decisions and solve problems more efficiently. They adapt more quickly to different markets and customers. Overall, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. The impact is even greater when women reach senior decision-making positions. Companies with a higher percentage of women in executive positions have a 34% higher total return to shareholders than those that do not.

    Gender parity is not just good for business, of course. It’s good for the economic performance of the country as a whole. In its 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, the World Economic Forum estimates that Britain could add £190 billion to its gross domestic product (GDP) by achieving gender parity. So positive action is not about women needing ‘help’ from organisations. It is about organisations needing more women to make sure that they remain commercially viable and relevant. Indeed, it is about making whole societies wealthier and healthier.

    Third, there is no shortage of talent among women. It is disheartening to hear young women say that they oppose positive action because they think it will lead to the selection of lower calibre employees. A quick look at the talent pipeline suggests otherwise. This year, UCAS data shows that 133,280 British women aged 18 have secured a university place, compared with 103,800 British men of this age. In fact, there is a real long-term problem in the lack of men going to university, but that’s another matter. Almost all universities have more women than men students, and the large majority of university courses enrol more women than men. So while there is genuine cause for alarm that people still think that positive action would lower the quality of the workforce, there is no need to worry about the actual shortage of bright, highly skilled and educated women.

    Fourth, it’s not as if the system will redress by itself without some deliberate intervention. Consider this, despite 48 years of equal pay legislation in the UK, nine out of ten women still work in organisations that pay women less than men. There are still more men called Dave or Steve acting as CEOs of FTSE 100 than there are women… According to the same Global Gender Gap Report, only 77% of gender parity has been achieved in the UK. This should suffice to make the case for positive action. When Ipsos Mori asked people to estimate how long it will take to close the economic gender gap, the average guess in the UK was 100 years. Not that a whole century is a short time, but this seriously over-estimates the rate of change.

    And finally, there is nothing inevitable about the gender pay gap. Some companies have no gender pay gap at all or one that actually favours women, such as Unilever, Diageo GB and Ocado. But it takes some deliberate effort. It certainly takes women and men not pushing back against positive action strategies designed to redress current inequalities. Because the logic behind the gender pay gap legislation is clear: it puts the ball in women’s court and trusts that, once women are made aware of inequalities, they will demand change. Will they?

    Versiti helps brands, charities and organisations unearth the evidence to drive change for good. Often, this involves surfacing inconvenient truths and highlighting the lived experiences of the under-served, the often un-heard and the misunderstood people in society. If you need insight to make change happen then you can email or call 020 3411 9006.


    Topics: Social research, Gender, HR, Equality

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