I recently attended a lunch for ladies put on by the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce. Ironically, given the theme was economic equality and how to inspire women, this was the first all female lunch the chamber has had in over a decade. In some ways it is easy to understand why – because no one wants to sound like a group of whinging harpies, and because equality should be about not discriminating. Given the stark statistics presented by Dr Haya Al-Dajani, we may have to put our lofty principles to one side for a little. She and her team at the Norwich Business School at the UEA, clearly quantify what we sort of already know.
- Women are under-represented in senior decision making posts
- Women earn less than men
- Women have more part time work that men
- Women are better qualified than men
The issue isn’t one of men versus women. The issue is about wasted potential, under-utilised and under-rewarded capacity. Why do so many bright, able, intelligent and high performing women leave college super-charged only to find their energies dissolved and eroded and re-directed before they ever get a change to embed family-friendly policies or work-life balance strategies. Part of the reason, and an obvious but species crucial one, is that they take time to have families. As they come away from the nappy zone, often wiser and stronger as a consequence, it is to find their place on the corporate ladder forever gone. Women who don’t have family, or who take minimal time away, can find themselves expected to bridge the gap between bosses (men?) unsympathetic to family challenges and mothers juggling logistics. Pretty irksome all round.
Listening to the women at the lunch it was clear that it the imbalance bothers women, but that there is no one solution – apart from complete overhaul of the whole socio-economic Western capitalist system that started evolving when the industrial revolution kicked-off. Life isn’t fair – but there are surely a few things we could do every day to make it a little more just. My initial suggestions are aimed at the beginning of the role assigning process.
1.) Be positively gender neutral with children. This means not just letting girls play cars and meccano, but positively encouraging them to – and not telling boys that Barbie is a toy for girls.
2.) Ensure all young people have to engage in physical activity including a team-base and competitive sport (yes, have to – bit tough this, but I believe the spirit of the “playing fields of Eton” is the spirit that binds and creates energy. It also improves self-esteem and confidence). The sports media, in my utopia, would broadcast women’s sport more too.
3.) Engage with school children earlier so that they all get a chance to understand the career choices that are available to them. For example, when the leading engineer from a racing car design company goes to tell a class of Year 10 (15 year olds) all about the beauty of precision engineering it should leave both girls and boys thinking “That could be me in 20 years time!” I believe this would help children not see the glittering prize as a place at university – but understand and embrace all the stepping stones en route to an economically fulfilling lifestyle.
And finally, women – share the good news stories about other women. Support women by mentoring, coaching and listening. Get networking, sharing ideas and championing – and, please, spend more time doing things and less time talking and worrying about it.