Why gender equality isn’t just an issue for women
Rob Marrs, Head of Education at the Society, argues that we can no longer pigeonhole gender inequality as an issue to be dealt with solely by women.
Just before the Christmas break it was announced that the solicitor profession had become majority female for the first time. Many newspapers picked up on the story and contrasted this equality in terms of numbers with the continuing comparatively low number of women at the highest echelons of the profession – something which has a huge impact on the gender pay gap.
As well as this, in recent months eminent legal minds such as Lady Hale, Lord Sumption, Lord Hodge, and Lord Justice Leveson have all spoken about judicial diversity. As someone working in equality and diversity, this increased focus and discussion has been heartening to witness.
I’ll be candid though: straight, white, middle class men working in equality and diversity tend to tread carefully. We are terrified of being told that we are mansplaining. It is depressing to note that – because of my background - people I meet on my travels ask: why are you interested? Isn’t this a women’s issue?
Many people think gender equality is a women’s issue. Many women do. To an extent, this is understandable. If you are on the wrong side of a pay gap you’ll usually care about it more! Ultimately, if many women think gender is only a women’s issue it is kind of understandable that men agree.
We’re all in this together
Gender equality isn’t about some winning and some losing. It isn’t a battle between the sexes. We ought to all benefit. A good recent example is the film Suffragette. This focuses on the women who fought for the right to vote. The film doesn’t mention that the 1918 Act (which is rightly famous for bringing over eight million women into the electorate) also enfranchised more than five million men who had previously been denied the vote. Nor does the film mention that the 1918 Act was passed by a parliament of men.
That isn’t to downplay the role of the suffragette movement. It is to note an obvious example of men benefitting from gender equality and also to highlight that men can play a part in achieving gender equality.
A more recent example of equality being good for both genders is the introduction of shared parental leave. We have some way to go before we get to Swedish levels of leave partly because it will take time for organisations to get fathers to take leave to enable an enormous cultural shift to happen. In the UK, closing the pay gap across society could very well make it easier for men to take a more active paternal role.
The problem of how the issues are framed
We can’t pigeonhole gender equality as a ‘women’s issue’ any more than we would argue poverty is a poor person’s issue or an underperforming school is only an issue for children who attend that particular school.
Many organisations in the Scottish legal profession are genuinely committed to gender re-balancing as part of how their business operates. But the world is giving them confusing messages – some people are saying ‘’gender is a women’s issue’ and others are saying ‘’gender is an issue for everyone’’. This might not seem a problem but I think it is.
If you view gender equality as a women’s issue then you will probably support women’s networks, women’s conferences, and so forth.
If you view gender equality as an issue for everyone then you’ll probably seek to do those things but also look more widely: by showing how equality and diversity benefits everyone or by establishing for men to discuss how they feel workplace issues facing women could be solved. That isn’t to say that women’s networks don’t have a role to play – they absolutely do! – but they can only be part of the solution.
The role of men
So let’s not label men as ‘champions’, but rather see men as an integral part of the solution. Men aren’t generally encouraged to be vocal on this subject (it is far, far easier to smile and nod) and women aren’t generally encouraged to expect or hear men championing issues which are of importance and value to them.
Why don’t we expect – or seem to want – men to become directly accountable for necessary change? If there is a glass ceiling, and we want to smash it, wouldn’t it be better if all those below and all those above were chipping away?
If reframing gender balance is a business imperative then it must be an imperative for everyone. It can’t simply be a women’s issue and male participation can’t be a side issue or an afterthought. As Lord Davies (who has led the push for voluntary ‘quotas’ on UK Boards) said, ‘discussions of Venus and Mars are now generational. The new generation Y/Z is omni-channel. CEO’s of today’s businesses need to get it. Or they (the business) won’t be around in 20 years’.
So if your organisation is serious about gender balance, you’ve got to get everyone interested and you’ve got to answer some difficult questions. Are leaders – both male and female – in your business accountable for the gender balance of talent in your organisation? Have you switched from maternity to parental leave? Do you need schemes or networks to promote women or do you need to think about progression across the board?
View our equality toolkit aimed at helping firms close their gender pay gap.