In this month’s ‘guest columnist’ feature, journalist Lottie O’Conor reflects on the recurring issues that she covered whilst working on The Guardian’s Women in Leadership desk and offers her thoughts on small personal changes that can make big a cultural difference.
Scrolling through the #InternationalWomensDay hashtag on Twitter earlier this month was a sobering experience. In amongst the inspirational stories, it was impossible to miss the undertone of negativity and of course, the inevitable questions.
Don’t we already talk enough about women’s issues? Why do women get a special day? And of course, my personal favourite: When is International Men’s Day? (The 19th November, in case you were wondering!)
Over the course of two years working on The Guardian’s Women in Leadership desk, I came up against questions like these on a daily basis. Why are you still ‘going on and on’ about these issues, commenters wanted to know. Surely, women have never had it so good. Isn’t it time to stop asking for more?
Writing about women’s issues, particularly when it comes to women in the workplace, can be a depressing affair.
Why is there still such a dearth of women in science and technology? How is it possible that the gender pay gap still exists?
Why are mothers still seen as a problem, rather than an asset? How long will it take before employers realise that flexible working benefits everyone?
How are exceptionally clever and qualified women still overlooked, in favour of men who shout louder? I could go on.
Sometimes, when the weather is grey, the commute is long and we are still marching, still protesting, still asking… Sometimes it can seem like an endless, losing battle.
It can seem like this, but it isn’t.
Change is happening. Slowly but surely, these small steps are building into something.
From April of this year in the UK, companies with more than 250 employees will be obligated to track the gender pay gap within their organisation. The results will be published next year, in a move that may have a significant long-term effect on the marketplace.
There has been progress at board level as well: thanks in part to the Davies Report, there are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 1OO.
The reason progress feels slow is that these practical changes are just a tiny part of a very big picture. They must be accompanied by cultural and social change if we are to truly move forward; the kind of change that means more than just a tick in a box or a number on a report.
Cultural change will mean that a parent who has been in the office since the early hours can leave work at 4pm to pick their child up without eyes rolling behind their back. It will mean that a woman will be hired because she is the best person for the job, despite the fact that she is pregnant. It will mean that an assertive female leader can simply be a leader, without being called a ‘ball breaker’.
These may seem like small things, but they aren’t. It is these changes that will make our society – in the workplace and beyond - a truly equal playing field. You don’t need to be the head of a company to play your part in this movement. How can we make this happen?
Look and listen
Often, we are so used to our surroundings that we forget to take a step back and really notice what is going on. Perhaps it’s something as simple as the women in your company always having to take notes at meetings, or being asked to make the tea. Perhaps there’s someone in your office who makes casually sexist comments, or maybe it’s standard practice to hold important meetings at 6pm, meaning that parents or flexible workers miss out. Whether it’s something small or something huge, identify the things that don’t quite sit right, and see what you can do to change them. All too often, cultural change is slow to happen because everyone is scared of making the first move and being the one to say ‘this isn’t right’.
While you probably won’t be popular if you march around your office demanding to see everyone’s payslip, keeping an eye on average earnings in your industry makes good business sense. The pay gap is still an issue, and, while it would be wonderful if talent and hard work automatically equalled a pay rise, often this isn’t enough. Stay informed. Keep an eye on the job market in your industry, or speak to a recruitment consultant and get a feel for how much you could be earning. If it isn’t enough, ask for a meeting with your boss or HR department, comprise your argument, and push for what you deserve.
This is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and often relates to senior women sharing the ‘secrets of their success’ with newcomers to the industry. While this is one way of doing it, by throwing the net a little wider, everyone can benefit. A mentor doesn’t have to be a woman, and they don’t have to be at the top of the pyramid. Men have an important role to play in this movement – an inclusive workplace is inclusive to everyone, and helps everyone to progress.
They seem insignificant, but it is these small steps that will eventually bring us to that long-overdue giant leap for equality.
About this month’s guest columnist
Lottie O’Conor (@lottieoconor) is a freelance writer and reporter, with a focus on women's issues. She has written for titles including The Guardian, Grazia and The Huffington Post.