Gender Equality in the Workplace: Time for Bold, Brave, Brotherly Solidarity?

Gender equality in the workplace is not a ‘women’s’ issue. And it’s certainly not a ‘minority’ concern (women are, after all, more than 50% of the population). It affects all of us. There can hardly be a man who is not closely, or intimately, connected with a working woman – a partner, mother, daughter, sister, friend or colleague. Guys, imagine your valued female family member, relative or associate working alongside a man who is less experienced, skilled, capable or knowledgeable than her… and walking away with a substantially lower pay packet than him. How do you feel about this? 

Now imagine that you are that man. This puts in you in the same shoes as a brave participant on one of our trainings, who admitted that in a previous job, he was promoted over a woman who was more experienced and skilled than him – basically, better at the job – just because he was a man. He felt terrible about it (and I mean this genuinely, as I don’t think he would have mentioned it in an equality, diversity and inclusion training otherwise!). But he was also caught in a dilemma – what if he challenged this decision, and his boss just gave the job to another man? He bit his tongue, but it cost him dearly in a currency that is hard to put a price on – his conscience. 

Our training participant knew he was subject to unearned privilege – it was unmistakable at the time and unpalatable even now, after many years had passed. However, most unearned privilege – whether in relation to gender, race, disability, educational background, or any other characteristic – is unconsciously experienced, not for what it is, but as natural entitlement: so natural, in fact, that it is almost never noticed – or considered noteworthy – by those in receipt of it. 

I recently heard a film director interviewed on radio speaking about gender inequality in cinema, and she pointed out that it’s easy for people of both sexes to bemoan the lack of multidimensional female characters in mainstream movies, and to call for better parts for women actors of all ages. But, she went on, how many famous male actors, so used to topping the bill in film, were really ready to play supporting parts to female leads? Come on guys, prove her wrong!  

As a metaphor for the big gender equality questions of our time, I find this a refreshingly simple and incisive challenge: brothers, are you ready to express your solidarity with women by accepting that half the time at least they will do the leading (and you the following) – and I don’t just mean in cinema? 

One last thought – a question I posed in a recent ED&I training: how many heterosexual relationships do you know in which the man is shorter, earns less and is younger than his partner? 

Answers on a post card…

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