Making Work, Work

A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) of 200,000 employees, featuring 141,000 women from 189 countries, found women just as ambitious as men at the outset and companies were at fault for stopping this, not family status or motherhood. The study is the latest in a line of research and discussion that dispels the myth of the gender ambition gap, showing that it is not choices that is keeping women back in the workplace, but existing structures and biases within corporations. That’s not news to us, though the idea that women choose to put their career on the backburner still widely persists. Discussions about why there are less women in CEO positions in the UK than there are CEOs who are men called John (yes really), or why women make up the bulk of part time workers are met with the argument that this is what women want; that they are choosing to lose footing in their career trajectories, rather than being giving little or no option by the structures they have before them. We look at some of the key findings in the study that show that what men and women want isn’t very different, and that employers really do have a responsibility to provide more options to enable everyone to pursue their ambitions.

Men don’t start off more ambitious, but they are ahead from the get go.

The pay gap isn’t something that only kicks in the later stages of a career – there is a disparity between starting pay between men and women in lower and entry level positions too. Ambition levels upon leaving education however were found to be largely equal by the BCG study.

That said, women are asking for higher pay – and are getting it

We are still told that women are not willing to and just aren’t as good at asking for and getting what they want in life, and it becomes a universally accepted truth. But it is not true all over, even though they might not be doing so well as men in certain sectors (but this is down to wider attitudes rather than inability). The more we buy into this myth the more it will remain true, so let’s stop telling women they aren’t predisposed to negotiation and start helping them to get out and do it.

It’s not about having children

Ambitions also do not vary by family status, but by company and industry. The more positively diverse and flexible a company is, the more ambition exists amongst employees – a no-brainer, really. Ambition is something to be nurtured and maintained within the workplace – people are only as ambitious as the opportunities they see as being available to them.

Men want a work-life balance as they get older too

Ambition levels appear to drop off in both men and women as they get older. Indeed, many men who have reached a certain level are satisfied and content in that position, while women in same position are often less so according to study. Ambition seems to only drops off more in women if the company culture is holding them back. In many families care responsibilities are becoming more equally taken, and can only continue to do so in a society that allows both to share responsibility of child and later years care. But more than that, more individuals are seeking better life, rather than race to top at all costs. As we have previously discussed, the way we define ambition is a major cultural factor – we need to further the idea of ambition as wanting a good life and a successful career in a culture that doesn’t expect constant super-human endurance.

Women in Law

There were many witty signs at the global Women’s March on 21 January 2016 – many taking aim at recent political developments, in particular the US election of President Donald Trump – but one stood out for me through its sheer simplicity: “Yes to Equality!” It was refreshingly clear, and who could argue with it when the globe’s population is pretty much split down the middle along gender lines? Surely we all welcome equality and an open society in which we can all thrive – women and men together?

I find much of the language of equality sits at the very opposite end from the clarity of that #womensmarch placard. In the last decade in particular, it has become too nuanced and inefficient at amplifying the very essence of our call for change – in the case of gender equality, a desire to embed it in our workplace and reduce the sexism levels in our society. I have now followed the debate for much of the last 7 years and, through the prism of being a mother to a daughter, I think we need to unify and simplify the message around ‘equality’ if we are to see lasting change.

In the workplace in particular, the language of equality has been replaced with that of ‘diversity and inclusion’. Has this shift helped? Equality requires action to ensure individuals or groups of individuals are not treated differently or less favourably, on the basis of their specific protected characteristic – including areas of race, gender, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation and age – and that avoids discrimination. Diversity and Inclusion, by contrast, introduced an element of choice around how a particular employer views individual differences so as to maximise their potential. This shift from action to choice is perhaps why, as a returning mum told me recently, we really need to shift the debate around gender equality and women in the workplace. There is a sense of being trapped in a straightjacket, which has managed to entangle us to the point of inaction.

We have witnessed the creation of a whole ‘diversity and inclusion’ professional class that has replaced much of the ‘equality’ speak that led to legislative changes in the past. We’ve now had equality legislation for decades, but still choose to pay women and men unequally. We choose to give women that have children a career ‘shelf life’ on the assumption that their ambition shouldn’t count once they choose to put their family first. We have an absence of women in leadership which we accept far too easily. Indeed, we still have a First Lady as opposed to a First Woman President in the US. Is this abundance of diversity initiatives working in effecting change or, to coin a phrase, is it #diversitywash? I think it is important that we ask why we are complicating the language of equality? We can no longer keep women riding on the inequality carrousel. Believing is doing, not words!