Warning: women at work

Wednesday 12 October, 7.00pm until 9.00pm, The Studio, Cannon Street, Birmingham B2 5EP

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Institute of Ideas website.

Research for the Institute of Leadership and Management earlier this year indicated 73% of women believe the ‘glass ceiling’ still exists, and this is borne out particularly when it comes to top-level management jobs (only 12% of FTSE 100 directors are women). Despite this, women workers have made major strides since the Ford machinists’ strike led to the Equal Pay Act 1970, as dramatised in the recent film Made in Dagenham. While there are still chauvinists in the high-powered world of business who think women are best suited for administrative roles – if not the kitchen sink - in truth women no longer suffer the gross discrimination they once did. Most workplaces are desperate to recruit more women to senior positions, and even some feminists acknowledge it is women themselves who sometimes choose less demanding careers in order to take responsibility for their children, inevitably earning less money and prestige.

The very idea of equality in the workplace is no longer just about this one issue. The 238-page Equality Act 2010 is intended to protect workers against discrimination not only on the grounds of sex, but also race, age, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief and sexual orientation. Moreover, the act goes beyond prohibiting direct discrimination: employers will also be responsible for ‘perceived discrimination’ and ‘third-party harassment’. As one HR website explains: ‘If a heterosexual is perceived to be gay, lesbian or bisexual – perhaps because of mannerisms or rumours – and becomes the butt of banter’, or ‘if an employee is subjected to joking about their partner’s disability or a friend’s sexual orientation’, they have grounds for complaint. Should we welcome this as an extension of women’s struggle for equal treatment, or has the historic fight for equal rights at work now been reduced to policing one another’s comments and attitudes, and running off to the boss if colleagues indulge in un-PC banter?

Do the much quoted statistics on women failing to reach the top of the ladder really merit a fight for equality, or does a narrow focus on the top corporate jobs miss the point that different people make different choices? Should we, at the very least, focus more on practical obstacles like the lack of child-care options, rather than conjuring up misogynist employers and blaming supposedly sexist attitudes? Do we need to examine workplace issues through the historical prism of gender and oppression at all? Indeed, is equality something we should be worried about at the moment? In the middle of a recession, with public sector cuts and new redundancies announced daily, is arguing for workplace equality a non-starter? Or will women have a fight on their hands to ensure job cuts don’t undo the progress made over the past few decades? Which way forward for women at work?

Linda Bellos
chair, Institute of Equality and Diversity Practitioners

Anne Fergusson
director, PwC

Jason Smith
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas

Dr Nina Powell
doctoral research fellow, National University of Singapore

Produced by
Dr Nina Powell doctoral research fellow, National University of Singapore
Jason Smith associate fellow, Institute of Ideas
Recommended readings
Women at Work: Could accepting progress lead to greater progress?

Looking through the prism of historical gender inequity might be a mistake that leads women to create the vision of past problems that no longer affect us.

NIna Powell, Independent, 12 October 2011

The price of oppressing your women

A recent Newsweek article listed the best and worst places to be a woman, and explained the disadvantages of oppression.

Naomi Wolf, Aljazeera, 5 October 2011

The Best and Worst Places for Women

Newsweek/The Daily Beast analyzed dozens of data points for 165 countries to determine which countries offer women the most expansive rights and the best quality of life.

Newsweek, 20 September 2011

Is the working woman allowed to get rich on screen?

Since the crash films about money-making are required to carry a strong moral health warning.

, 17 September 2011

It's nonsense for David Willetts to say that women have stolen men's careers

The universities minister is still playing that convenient female-bashing game

Deborah Orr, Guardian, 8 April 2011

Has feminism blocked social mobility for men?

Feminism provided an obstacle to social mobility for working-class men, Cabinet minister David Willetts has controversially argued. But is he right?

BBC News, 7 April 2011

Why David Willetts is wrong about feminism

Willetts is right that feminists are responsible for the plight of working class men. But not because they have stolen their jobs. Feminists – or at least the kind that have gained the upper hand in this varied movement – have undermined working class men with their philosophy that all males are expendable

Cristina Odone, Daily Telegraph, 2 April 2011

The Equality Act is a dangerous Joke

On 1 October the Equality Act 2010 became law. Its stated intention is to end discrimination in the workplace. The likely result is it will poison relationships between colleagues and employer-employee. It urges us all to view ourselves as victims in need of state intervention to police our working lives.

Alex Deane, Big Brother Watch, 16 October 2010

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