Men, women and equality today

Written by Liz Willis on 10 February 2016
It’s 46 years since the UK’s Equal Pay Act. As a college student, I remember the excitement around that piece of legislation, following the campaigns triggered by the women’s strike at Ford, in Dagenham. I recall a sense of achievement, a sense of relief that something wrong had been put right. But had it? 
 
The Fawcett Society has just published the results of a large, nationwide survey of people’s views on gender equality. It’s a valuable snapshot of our current situation. All of us who’re involved in helping people to develop their skills and potential at work will find some useful nuggets in there.
 
Curiously, support for gender equality appears to increase with age: 87 per cent of people aged over 55 support it, while the equivalent percentage of people aged 18 to 34 is 78 per cent. 
 
Younger people may think no further action is needed. Is this because they haven’t yet encountered any hurdles? Is it youthful optimism? Or naivety? 
 
In delivering the ‘Springboard Women’s Development Programme’ throughout the UK, we’ve always found it’s women in their late 30s and 40s who have the interest and determination to tackle the hurdles holding them back.
 
Younger women tend to assume that there’s already a level playing field. I'd like to think this is true but, as we’re still getting that response from women with some years of work experience, I suspect it’s more about life experience taking the shine off perceptions.
 
A surprise result is the level of support from men: 70 per cent of men believe a more gender equal society would be better for the economy, and 86 per cent of men want equality for the women in their lives. Again, support increases with age. 
 
However, worryingly, those who make recruitment and interviewing decisions are more than twice as likely (16 per cent) as the overall population (7 per cent) to be actively against gender equality. That should make us all pause for thought and resolve to do something about it.
 
Meanwhile, 60 per cent of people believe that men in top jobs won’t make room for women unless forced to do so. This suggests the need for enforceable quotas. Targets just would not do the job. 
 
The profile of transgender issues has risen significantly in recent years and, as these issues take a higher profile in the workplace, all of us in the people-development business need to keep up-to-speed.
 
In the Springboard Consultancy, issues around gender identity and gender-fluidity are being raised with us more frequently than ever before, and trainers need to be ready for these issues to be discussed on courses. 
 
In the Fawcett Society survey, 56 per cent of people believe there are only two genders while 44 per cent believe gender can be a range of identities. There’s a link here with women’s equality issues. Women, people aged between 18 and 34, and people who call themselves feminists are more likely to agree that gender can be a range of identities. 
 
Where does this leave us? There’s no room for complacency and, while there are encouraging signs, there are just as many demoralising ones. 
 
We could reasonably expect, in a world of work where only a small proportion of us are required to do hard manual work (of which, incidentally, some women are perfectly capable), that the issue of appointing, training and developing a person to be the best at her/his work, and be able to make a full contribution to family, workplace and community, regardless of gender, was beyond argument. Apparently not.
 
Don’t let these issues be swept under the carpet. Create a safe environment on your training courses for the debate to continue and keep putting the issues on the agenda. There’s still a long way to go.
 
About the author
 
Liz Willis OBE, Joint CEO of The Springboard Consultancy
 

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