Gender Blindness in the Workplace?

My Prejudice

I think I had better begin by declaring my bias! I am a feminine feminist: I do not think women need to, or should have to, behave like men to get on in the world of work. I believe at times we have had to because the world of work has been designed by men for men: if women wanted to get ahead they had to play the game like men (think 80s).

And I think (and this is borne out by research on comparative pay scales, promotion, etc) the skills and attributes women bring to the workplace are still valued and rewarded less than male equivalents.

Now that is not to take a cheap jibe at men, not at all. It’s simply a fact. Women are still a relatively new entry into the world of professional and paid employment. We’ve only really been around in any meaningful way for the last 40 years or so. The world of work was not designed to accommodate women and most of us are still working within systems that work particularly well for one half of the population because that half of the population invented them. When there were roles for women they were in a support capacity, supporting the important work of men.

The Fire & Rescue Service

Let me give you an example. My husband is a fire-fighter. (A few years ago I would have automatically called him a fireman– language is very important). When he graduated from Fire Brigade Training School I attended the parade with our two children, a boy and a girl; our daughter was then 4 and our son a few months old. The Chief Officer gave a speech that made no reference to women at all other than as supporters of their men now in the service (a service I have huge respect for). Later on he tickled my son under the chin and said:

So, when you grow up are you going be to be a strong fireman like Daddy

I replied on my son’s behalf:

No, but I think my daughter might be”.

I wish I could have taken a photo of his face. He was truly shocked and horrified and most people thought I was making a joke, or being provocative as usual. I was, of course, but I meant it!

Yet within a decade of that comment women were employed in fire services across the world. Hooray! But it hasn’t been easy because every system in the operational side of the fire service had been designed to suit men. And in many cases they are still run by men who thought the concept laughable only a relatively few years ago.

Diversity Training

A lot of the changes have come about because of pressure from women and men, which has resulted in diversity and education programmes across the piece, not just to achieve equality for women but to include all minority cultures.

But hang on a minute, minority cultures? How did women get put into the minority culture bracket when we make up at least half the population of the world?

Diversity training exists to break down barriers and promote understanding and equality of opportunity and access – and thank goodness for it. We need it. But a subtext of diversity training is that there is a dominant culture and in most of the Western world at least that dominant culture is white and male. As Wittenberg-Cox & Maitland state in their excellent book ‘Why Women Mean Business’:

Diversity issues can actually reinforce stereotypes by over-emphasising parenting and work-life balance issues and framing them primarily as a ‘woman’s problems’ that has to be managed”.

It’s based on the presumption that women need help to be more like men!

I have designed a leadership course for women; one of the exercises is to imagine if the world of business and work had been designed solely by women for women. The answers are interesting. There is the expected stuff about childcare and flexible working but also more unexpected issues like interview processes and office environments. Why is office stuff usually grey, for example? We know colour stimulates the imagination and problem solving but creating a nice working environment is often seen as ‘girlie’, with ‘girlie’ being used as a put down – being ‘girlie’ is somehow inferior to being ‘boyey’!

Gender Bi Lingualism

Until the world of work and business truly values what women bring to it we have not achieved equality. Early attempts at equality meant treating everyone the same. But we’re not the same. Men and women are different, whether nature or nurture, we are different. We bring different skills and attributes to the workplace; we serve a world equally divided so at the very least it should make good business sense to have working cultures which encompass both. (See Why Women Mean Business)

Making the workplace open and equable to women is not a diversity issue. It’s plain commonsense and fairness and it’s good for business! After all, women make 80% of all purchasing decisions! Women are 54% of university graduates across OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development) countries. And they are gaining higher grades!


There is evidence to suggest that companies that have women at the top find it good for business. Catalyst, a US think tank, looked at links between women leaders and the performance of Fortune 500 companies, and found that those with most women were doing significantly better than those with lowest number of women. It was even better when there were three or more women on the board, not just one token woman.

I think the key lies in it no longer being a woman’s problem but something that is recognised across the board (literally and figuratively). Modern companies know it makes sound business sense. They are bringing in experts to look at all their processes, from the subtle bias of the way advertisements are worded to in house publications and provision of toilets (trust me that’s a big one. Fire stations had NO women’s toilets at all at first).

If women are underrepresented at senior levels in your organisation maybe it’s time to start asking some questions:

At what grade or level do women stop applying for/being promoted to senior jobs?

Has an analysis been made of the reasons why?

Is there a clearly non gender specific ideal leadership profile for the organisation?

Is there succession planning with a pool of both gender high potential employees?

Is the progress of women monitored and questions asked of managers when there is an discrepancy in numbers of female employees and numbers of female managers?

My biggest fear is that younger women seem to think there is no problem and are accepting of the status quo. They have not experienced the overt discrimination of their mothers and grandmothers. Companies are no longer able to overtly discriminate. Yet there is still a pay gap of 16.4% between comparable male and female jobs!


Posted on March 15th, 2010 by

One Response to “Gender Blindness in the Workplace?”

  1. a wee funny for you. I was based at Kineton when I was in the army. One day there was a HUGE inspection by some big wig (can’t remember who!) anyway he stopped at one of the tiniest wee girls in the camp and said “do you really think you could kill a man” .. her reply “eventually sir!”

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