We must choose To challenge workplace gender bias

The stubborn workplace barriers to gender equality highlight why this year's IWD #ChooseToChallenge theme is so important

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Gender equality is an issue that impacts many different people in a variety of ways.

After thousands of years of conditioning with regards to the “role” women play in society – systemic sexism has been ingrained into our psyche and remains stubbornly resistant to change.

The evidence is everywhere. In the workplace, it is never men that are accused of being “too opinionated”, “too emotional”, “too loud”, or “too forceful”. It is not the fathers that are criticised for “putting work first”. In relationships where both parents work full time, the person inevitably held accountable for forgetting to sign a school form or sending children to school in uniform on a dress-down day is the mother.

When I look back at my career within the IT industry, I can recall times where:

  • Thoughts and ideas shared by women were dismissed only to be received positively when presented by male colleagues.
  • Children doing 10-hour stints in daycare, five days a week, because their mum’s employers were inflexible and they “had” to be at their desk from 9 am until 5.30 pm.
  • Working mums missing out on valuable employer pension contributions and healthcare benefits as they more frequently had to change roles or companies to accommodate the changing demands of family life.
  • Women who left organisations were replaced by men with less experience and less industry knowledge but were awarded a higher salary.

Were the above intentional attempts to oppress or discriminate against a woman? Not in all cases. Is it “just” men that are perpetuating the issue? No. But whatever the motivation or circumstance, there is no way to hide, explain away or excuse the damage caused to women’s wellbeing and careers who might otherwise have risen to the top of their professions.

Workplace equality is a choice

Early in my career, the small number of women who held positions of authority – who at that time were leading the charge for equality – were openly criticised for “leaving their children” and “putting work first” by men and women alike. A fact that still saddens me to this day.

But in more recent times, I am happy to have witnessed a groundswell of support from men who actively respond to the tacit consent of wrongdoing toward female colleagues. Indeed, some are now voting with their feet – I’m aware of one organisation, for instance, where at least two men departed as they were uncomfortable with its misogynistic mindset. Whether their principled stand brought about wider cultural change in their former employer remains unknown, but when these choices become the rule rather than the exception, the momentum behind workplace equality will finally become irresistible.

And it’s important to recognise progress. The recently published Hampton-Alexander Review revealed that the number of female directors in FTSE companies has risen by 50% in the past five years. The result is that women now make up just under 35% of these senior roles in the leading 350 UK businesses, with over 1,000 now working at the board level.


However, while women remain firmly in the minority, we must continue to engage with the serious remaining barriers to true equality. Be in no doubt, many of the behaviours and attitudes that sustain workplace bias are because of the active choices people make. That’s why the #ChooseToChallenge theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is so powerful. If people can be convinced to examine their own attitudes and perhaps face some uncomfortable truths about the degree and impact of their approach to equality, then the momentum will shift.

Similarly, if employers create an environment where it is safe for people to #ChooseToChallenge without putting their prospects – or even their job security – at risk, we will help create a cultural norm that values equality over inequality.

With time and attention, the issue of gender bias and inequality can be addressed by removing stereotypes from our language, being an advocate and ally to all women, having a flexible attitude toward those responsible for childcare, embracing diversity and – above all – being considerate toward the needs and feelings of our fellow human beings.

I believe that gender bias and inequality can be overcome, but we are ALL responsible for making this happen. Equality advocates must continue to campaign loudly to consign attitudes that seek to control the lives of half the people in society to history. Delivering on gender equality will also deliver better societies where people thrive based on their talent and effort,  and organisations succeed because workplaces without bias are simply the best way to work.

By Donna Cooper, Global Marketing Director at WhereScape

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