Written by Fiona Halkyard @ Chatter Communications
I don’t really think of myself as much of a feminist. I don’t get offended if a man holds a door open for me or calls me “love” (to be fair living in Yorkshire, it’s a pre-requisite and even men get called love, so score one for equality!). But I am a woman who’s pretty dedicated to her career. I’m a working mum. And, most importantly, I have three daughters who are (in my completely neutral opinion) amazing human beings who will go on to be brilliant adults. And for them, and their generation, I’d like to see true gender equality finally become a real thing.
And so there are certain “female” issues that really piss me off. And the current bee in my bonnet is the gender pay gap (which leaves British women earning an average of 17.4% less than men in similar full-time jobs and places us 15th out of 22 countries*). Or rather the gender bias that continues to dog our society and prevent women from achieving the same career success as their male counterparts.
Through my twenties my career progressed quite successfully and initially, being female didn’t really factor. But once I moved into a management role I started to become aware of nuanced differences between the way I was treated compared to men of a similar age.
There was a “boys club” of up and coming ad execs who got invited to golf/beers/important client dinners with the MD and Chairman and suddenly progressed their careers far quicker than me and my female colleagues. The most memorable moment that made me stop and pay attention that perhaps I wasn’t being judged purely on my ability, was the conversation I had with the company Chairman when being considered for a promotion and he “joked” that he was only considering me because he “trusted” that I wasn’t just going to “run off and have babies anytime soon”. I was 27, engaged, and whilst not immediately planning a family, I knew it probably wasn’t too far off in my future. Yet I had to pretend that “no, no I’m a dedicated career woman, none of this baby nonsense for me” in order to pass his “test”.
I wonder if any man has ever felt that pressure? They certainly didn’t in that particular business where men could marry and become Dads without a single raised eyebrow from the powers that be. To be aware that even the potential of a marriage/baby that may not happen for a decade or more (or ever) could be a factor you have to answer to because you are “a woman of a certain age” is frustrating and archaic. And while most employers are far too savvy/legally compliant to ask the question that my old boss did, we all know that it is often consciously or unconsciously a factor when hiring or promoting a young woman.
And to some extent I get it. Women do often have babies in their late twenties, thirties, forties. And then want reduced/flexible hours. And that costs a business, especially a small one, a lot of money that perhaps doesn’t make up for the value of the employee in their child free years. But women do not choose to be born female. So why should they have to choose career or parenthood? Men don’t. Does that make men better at their jobs? Does it make them lesser parents? In my opinion the answer is no.
The here and now
The UK has made fabulous strides over the past 11 years, since I became a mum, to make it a little bit easier to juggle motherhood and working life. Maternity pay/leave have been extended and it’s become the norm to take a year or more off and still return to a well paid role. Flexible working policies have also become fairly common place, allowing women to balance the demands of work and parenting. Which is all brilliant. But still comes with restrictions. Breakfast meetings, after work networking, long days of travel, are all pretty hard to work around most childcare provisions. And whilst colleagues can be supportive, you can still feel that you’re more “difficult” to work with than a child-free colleague. And that affects confidence, your feelings of job security, it can put you off applying for a promotion or new role as you don’t want to upset the status quo.
And so women tread water while their kids are young and their male counterparts progress. And by the time you’re able to be “all in” at work, you’ve reached a glass ceiling and are reporting into men with 10 years less experience than you have. And so the gender pay gap persists.
So what’s the answer? What can we do? Even more benefits and support for women? Maybe. But to change the social stigma, how about we focus on men?
Again the UK has made some excellent progress in sharing the load of parental responsibility in the work place with paid paternity leave and shared parental leave and the opportunity for anyone to apply for flexible working. But it’s still not the norm. Paid paternity leave is still only funded by the government for 2 weeks. Our parenting leave is only the 11th most equal out of 21 countries* with shared parental leave a minefield to organise and flexible or part time working is still something that feels more aimed at women than men (men make up only 25.8% of the part-time workforce, leaving the UK 16th out of 21 countries measured *). Dads who take extended time off to be with their new baby tend to face social stigma, or at least a few raised eyebrows. And this means that on average, British men spend 24 minutes caring for children, for every hour done by women, according to the Fatherhood Institute’s Fairness In Families Index (FIFI).
People also presume that the woman will be the one to take a career break as the man is earning more (a comment even my own husband made, completely forgetting that when we started a family we were on equal salaries, as many couples are). And on the flip side, women whose partners take more time off than them are seen as “lesser” mums, putting their career before their kids. And because of all of this, men in their late twenties and early thirties are still not associated with the “pregnancy risk” that may entail a career break or reducing their hours at some point, even if married or with long term partners.
But if we could encourage more men to take up the opportunity to be at home with their kids, work flexibly and take on more of the parental juggle – without being judged for it. If we bring our kids up to see that both mum and dad can be their carer and have a career maybe things might finally be come more equal.
And if a parental career break (or indeed a mid-life career break for any purpose) becomes society’s standard for both men and women, then the glass ceiling might finally shatter. Maybe not for me and my peers (if we’re lucky we’ll be retired by then!). But if my daughters can dream, believe and achieve with no limits, then that would be a wonderful thing.
*stats taken from the Fatherhood Institute’s Fairness In Families Index 2016