“Just make sure you don’t hire any woman who looks like she might get pregnant.” I was so taken aback by the words coming out of the mouth of my then-colleague that I said nothing. Instead I meekly nodded and tried to work out how one would even go about ascertaining whether any potential female employee might decide to start a family.
The memory makes me angry, but less at his behaviour and more at my own cowardice. My pathetic response – silent rage rather than throwing my glass of water over him, citing the 2010 Equality Act and going on a hiring spree at the nearest maternity ward – was perhaps indicative of how unsurprising sexism in the workplace still is. Shocking, yes, surprising, no.
Yes, we have had equal pay laws in England for more than 50 years, laws against discrimination of this kind for more than a decade, and now all companies with more than 250 employees are required by law to report their gender pay gap. But this doesn’t mean an insidious culture of sexism doesn’t bubble away under the table we’re (sometimes) invited to sit at.
Download the new Independent Premium app
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
This week alone we’ve seen US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez be called a “bitch” (a pejorative that has been used since the 15th century against women, including famously against Hillary Clinton) by Republican Ted Yoho, on the steps of the US Capitol. Ocasio-Cortez said in a response on Thursday: “This issue is not about one incident. It is cultural.” As if to reinforce her point, a study released 12 hours later found a third of women have been urged by their employer to “dress sexier”, wear more make-up or redo their hair during video calls from home.
In May we celebrated 50 years since the women of the Dagenham Ford plant forced the issue of equal pay onto the political stage, but if those women were to visit any number of workplaces across the UK today they would find many of the same structural issues. Just ask the woman who switched email signatures with her male colleague and found everyone took her “more seriously” and were “more receptive” to her communications.
Or the women working for Virgin Atlantic or Japan Airlines who were only recently allowed to dare turn up to work in trousers and flat shoes rather than high heels or mini skirts – progress!
A report by the charity Young Women’s Trust in January 2020 found two out of five female managers still think their workplace is sexist. Two in five said it was more difficult for women to progress in their organisation than men and 10 per cent of men surveyed said men were still better suited to senior management positions than women. In some industries it is worse. For example, a study of construction workers found 72 per cent of women claimed to have experienced gender discrimination at work.
The issue is of course even worse for women of colour, who experience a greater gender pay gap and are less likely to be in board positions than white women. The World Economic Forum says while white women will reach gender parity with men in the US in 2059, for black women the date is 2130 – 110 years away.
Women with disabilities also face “double discrimination”, a term used by the UN; TUC research found disabled women experienced “significantly higher” levels of sexual harassment than disabled men and non-disabled men and women. Disabled women are twice as likely to report unwanted touching (50 per cent versus 26 per cent for non-disabled women) at work.
And it’s not just the illegal, headline-grabbing instances of sexism either. Office culture is built upon pro-male language as shorthand: gentlemen’s agreement, middle man, right-hand man. But words matter; women are more likely to be referred to as scattered, opportunistic, gossips, vain, temperamental and indecisive. This may seem innocuous, but in performance reviews women get vague generalities while men get specifics – undoubtedly a contributing factor in furthering men’s careers.
As if these issues weren’t bad enough before 2020, the impact of coronavirus will undoubtedly take us two steps back. We already know women have taken on the bulk of childcare during lockdown, even when they are working the same hours as male counterparts; are more likely to have been made redundant in swathes of job losses; and pay gap reporting has been suspended – because who needs to worry about equality in a time of crisis?
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe