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The Second Sex

Diversity, Written by Real World November 3, 2008

The Second Sex


2008 is the 80th anniversary of women gaining the vote in the UK. After all this time you’d think sexual equality, gender stereotyping, and the ‘glass ceiling’ for women’s career aspirations would have ceased to be issues.  However, the statistics show sexist attitudes most definitely still exist and differences in wages between men and women are significant. 

According to a new report by the Fawcett Society, mothers-to-be and new mothers experience the biggest discrimination in the labour market. Women still make up only 11 per cent of the FTSE 100 Company directors, while women working full-time are paid on average 17 per cent less than men.

It is in the sectors traditionally seen as ‘male’, such as science and technology, where old-fashioned attitudes are proving the hardest to change. Carol Boyer-Spooner is the CEO of Chemistry Innovation Ltd, and worked for ICI in Australia for many years where the situation is much better than in the UK. ‘That is why I’m now doing the job I’m doing,’ she explains, ‘because I see it as an opportunity to change attitudes and readjust the bias.’

It is not that the industry is anti-female per se, she says. ‘I think the dilemma we have is that there is a traditional approach to the recruitment process. This is mainly due to the fact it is still white, Anglo-Saxon males running these foundations and so things still tend to be done the way they have always been done. It takes a long time for attitudes to change. We all have a tendency of recruiting in the mirror (a process known as homophily – recruiting in one’s own image), so predominantly what happens is white males recruit more white males. It’s not just a problem with recruiting women, but diversity across the board.  If we continue to have solely white Anglo-Saxon males on the boards of the major chemical companies we will not get the diversity of workforce we need.  We need more role models from diverse backgrounds to show there is a future in this sector.’

She says much of the problem could be solved by changing the way chemistry and all the sciences are taught in schools. ‘While males always seem to be attracted to the industry because of all the bangs, pops and explosions, in order to attract girls you have to appeal to their creative nature. In school talk about things they can actually relate to such as what (chemically) is in their lunch box or in their make up.’ In America the Museum of Science in Boston is already running Cosmetic Chemistry seminars, where girls can formulate and make their own lip glosses and moisturisers.

The principal legislation governing sex discrimination in the UK is the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA) which makes discrimination unlawful on the grounds of sex and marital status, and gender reassignment. The Act was amended this

Year and makes provisions for equality between men and women in terms of access to employment, vocational training, promotion, and other terms and conditions of work.

There is no qualifying period for employees: protection under the SDA begins from day one of employment.

It’s not just in the chemical industry where sexual stereotyping exists either. Jo Cameron, ex Apprentice hopeful and founder of UR, a women’s development company, used to be a senior manager in the motor industry. ‘It was an extremely difficult and hostile environment for a woman,’ she recalls. ‘I

quite understand why women do not want to enter such industries. Employers need to be aware of why this is happening and do something about it, otherwise we will

continue to see less than three per cent of girls opt for technical or scientific qualifications at the expense of the economy. I’ve come across institutional sexism that I believe is ingrained in many industries and which prevents women

from getting to the top.’ It makes sense to have equal numbers of men and women in the workplace. It’s not just about equal rights, it’s about business and creating a workplace that is enticing to all people. Reflecting the rich mix of the population helps to improve the bottom line.’

Jo agrees with Carol it is time for companies to address this inequality and get more women onboard.  ‘Many women still feel marginalised in the masculine world of work that still prevails and one of the reasons for that is, as women we are still quite new to the workplace,’ she comments.  ‘But there are many benefits to be gained from employing a diverse workface. We need more effective incentives such as tax break for employers to take a positive stance on diversity.’  However, Jo does feel women could do more to help themselves. ‘Women should be saying to themselves “how do I get paid more? How do I celebrate the achievements I have” and learn to negotiate better. Women don’t like to talk about money. This is a key problem and unless we start to value ourselves as women things are not going to change. It’s a cultural issue; women tend to use more passive language.  We say perhaps or could or maybe, whereas men are much more decisive.  It’s called Invisibility Syndrome: when a lone woman is in a group of senior men she’ll put her ideas forward and they never even register, but we need to get more women involved because they are just as important. It makes sense to have equal numbers of men and women in the workplace. It’s not just about equal rights, it’s about business and creating a workplace that is enticing to all people.  Reflecting the rich mix of the population improves the bottom line.’ 

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