For around 40 years, equal opportunity legislation has been in place in most Western countries. Despite this, progress towards women having an equal share of top jobs remains painfully slow. The latest figures suggest that only around 5% of CEOs in the UK’s largest companies are women. This percentage is not dissimilar to the rest of the Western world – with long-term trends flat-lining or even pointing to a decline in the numbers of women in CEO positions.
Unfortunately, this trend is similar for almost any kind of job deemed ‘high-status’ in society. A few years ago I conducted research into a large science organisation which employed around 1,600 scientists - 60% of which were women – and found that, despite the majority of the workforce being highly qualified women, all 13 scientists in the most senior grade were men, as were more than two-thirds of the 110 staff in the two grades below.
Of course, as we know it is not just women who face greater challenges in the workplace. Many people with the so-called protected characteristics listed in the UK’s Equality Act (a skin colour other than white, a disability, non-heterosexual orientation and so on) suffer similar disadvantages, regardless of their gender.
Even being comparatively short in stature has been shown to provide a statistically significant disadvantage in career terms. It is as if we still take it for granted that the ‘ideal’ senior person should be male, white, straight, able-bodied, tall and preferably educated privately. Those who do not fit these characteristics always have an uphill battle to prove they can make up for their inherent differences – even if they have an exemplary CV.
On the plus side, these issues are now being recognised. Many organisations now mandate all staff to attend unconscious bias courses, for example. Still, there is a suspicion that a lot of lip service is being paid to these problems. It is relatively easy to write progressive-looking policy documents and organise a few courses, but it’s a different thing altogether for an organisation to invest significant amounts of hard cash where their mouth is.
The best indicator of whether or not an organisation is paying genuine concern to these issues is how they spend their money. A lack of spending on equality and diversity – even in industries dominated by males that would benefit directly from more women joining them – demonstrates that diversity is often not regarded as a real or pressing business problem.
As powerful men automatically benefit from the privileges of being a man, they are unlikely to question these privileges seriously unless forced to do so. Sooner or later men need to face this underlying issue, as opposed to continuing to avoid it, and look to do something to change this.
Unfortunately, the continuing hierarchy of privileged male groups means that it is difficult to force senior men to question their gender privileges. Speaking out effectively takes a lot of guts, and many who protest about workplace inequality too overtly can face considerable (if often subtle, hard-to-complain) forms of hostility, from their disapproving bosses.
Over the last 100 years, there have only been two periods in which mass sustained progress has been made for gender equality in the UK. The first was the era of the Suffragettes who successfully obtained the right to vote. The second was the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, when equal opportunities legislation was first enacted. Outside these two periods, progress has been painfully slow.
The lesson history seems to be telling us is that sustained activism for equality does work. In fact, activism may be necessary to enact any substantial change at all. So why are we (men as well as women) not protesting more about the frankly gross injustices that are still rife in society? Given the hostility towards many of those who speak out, perhaps the lack of protest is unsurprising. I suspect, however, that it is only when enough of us get angry enough to protest loudly and openly, that change will start to happen more quickly.