Are we resigned to gender inequality at work?

I was privileged to be involved in organising the Bevan Foundation’s event ‘The Feminine Organisation’ this week, an event focused on addressing the prevalence of gender inequality in the workplace. It was refreshing, if at times disheartening, to be in a room with so many women who have experienced the same gender-related challenges at work.

While giving an overview of her project into women in the workplace, key speaker Deborah Hargreaves asked ‘Why are we not more angry about the gender pay gap and equality in the workplace?’ My initial thought was that while many of us are frustrated, we are probably too busy to get angry. But in hindsight, I wonder if we have become resigned to it to a certain extent?

Like 10% of the audience, I was made redundant while pregnant. I couldn’t face the idea of an interview panel, let alone the prospect of three months giving my all to a role while heavily pregnant – so I took my daughter out of childcare and started my maternity break early.

When I was ready to go back to work, I was told that it was highly unlikely (and unrealistic) that I’d find a part-time job at manager level. The options were essentially work five days a week, or be paid four days but still work five – so like many before me, I set up my own business.

I was angry about the lack of options, but I was, quite frankly, too sleep deprived to fight it. Ultimately, I accepted the status quo and chose self-employment. It was a route I’d already set my sights on, and my husband’s fortunate work position, coupled with the promise of being able to work on a variety of projects and enjoy greater flexibility, made it an easy choice under the circumstances.

But many mothers and carers don’t have that choice. I know of many women working a full-time job in part-time hours. Many others who have been refused reduced hours, even where their colleagues are keen to recruit a job share. Many still who have taken drastic demotions to be able to juggle life and work. Not because they can’t or don’t want to perform at a senior level, but because the roles are not compatible with an enjoyable, healthy life-work balance.

I recently watched the episode of the Canadian sitcom ‘Workin’ Moms’ where the show’s star Kate is forced to choose between finishing an important pitch or cutting it short to make an emergency visit to her son in hospital – the latter option one her new (female) boss warns her is ‘a slippery slope’. Whether her boss had been forced to ‘walk the walk’ in a male-dominated workplace or was just a bad manager, I was left feeling frustrated by the decision Kate is forced into. It’s the kind of decision many women in senior roles will empathise with – mothers or not.

Close-to-the-bone comedy aside, wouldn’t there be far more women getting senior roles if those roles were better adapted to them? If expectations were fairer, more job-share opportunities were available, and there were more senior women already in place and involved in the recruitment process? As Deborah said in her talk, we should be looking at fitting work around our lives instead of trying to fit our lives around work.

The current culture is, as she also rightly pointed out, increasingly unsuitable for men too.  Many men I know would love to work reduced or at least flexible hours, and many would benefit from having a more diverse workforce too.

The reality is that until workplace culture shifts to make it more appealing for women to accept senior roles and more accepting for men to appeal for greater flexibility, we won’t achieve gender equality at work. But if the workplace can understand and adapt to meet everyone’s requirements, then more women might find reaching for the pinnacle worth the fight.

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