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Male & female professionals - level playing field? 04/02/2011

The recent sacking of Sky football pundit Andy Gray for sexist comments, has led Karen Cole to contemplate the ever increasing importance and relevance of equality and diversity legislation in this day and age.

Male & female professionals - level playing field?

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  1. Is sexism still prevalent in the workplace?
  2. Why are women under-represented in the boardroom?
  3. A shift in attitudes is needed
  4. Equal responsibility to promote equality

Is sexism still prevalent in the workplace?

It's clear that attitudes towards women in the workplace have changed. Such a public demonstration of the refusal to accept the type of comment made by Andy Gray is a positive step in terms of attributing consequences to individuals in relation to their interaction with colleagues, be it in very public or more private domain. But how much of an impact does this have on real attitudes within the workplace?

The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Equality and Discrimination Act, with its most recent revision in 2010 clearly outline guidelines regarding sex discrimination for issues from recruitment, to promotion and determining pay, to what is and is not acceptable behaviour in the work environment.

Yet it amazes me that in 2011, women are still being subjected to impropriate comments at work, let alone the persistent pay gap that still exists between the genders. A survey we conducted as a business in 2002 illustrated a gap in the salaries between men and women in the same job. Eight years on with the Equality Act in place, we would hope that this gap was diminishing and that these types of attitudes would be totally wiped out by now. This does not however, appear to be the case.

Why are women under-represented in the boardroom?

When we consider the position of women in the workplace, it's true to say, "the higher you go, the harder you have to look." Despite an established trend of women out-performing men at every stage of higher education, once they cross to the workforce the position reverses. A report by the Cranfield School of Management published in 2010 confirms that out of the 1,076 members on the FTSE 100 boards, only 135 are female - 12.5%. Over the last three years, this figure has changed very little and the talent so clearly demonstrated during higher education is not being realised in business.

As recently as 2002, the BBC published a report from the Equal Opportunities Commission that suggested people believed that choice, rather than discrimination was the reason for women receiving lower pay than their male counterparts and by association not progressing up the career ladder. Part of the justification for such attitudes was a segregation of women into low paid sectors and the woman’s traditional role within the family.

A shift in attitudes is needed

However, more recent reports suggest that there has been a shift in stereotypical attitudes towards the role that gender plays within the family. In 2008, only 16% of people agreed with the statement, "A man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family". It's a much less prevalent idea in today’s society that it's solely the woman’s responsibility to raise the family and the man to be the breadwinner. Traditional gender roles are becoming more blurred, and it's no longer a surprise should it be the father who takes on the child care responsibilities. So, how do we account for the lack of women in higher paid roles? 

Sexism evidently still exists within our society as Mr Gray and his colleagues so publicly demonstrated, but I don’t consider that we can hold this solely to account for this situation. Do women rather lack ambition? As a company director and professional working woman, I would have to answer no. Women can be ambitious and are more than capable of fulfilling their potential and there is evidence of a gradual change in the established trend. In the past decade, female entrepreneurship has steadily increased, and the gender pay gap, whilst not having disappeared does seem to be slowly decreasing. Such positive steps are not assisted by attitudes that we have recently seen. So, how do we counter the persistence and contribute to this gradual cultural change?

Equal responsibility to promote equality

Companies of course have a responsibility towards their employees, and ensuring that there is a comprehensive equal opportunities policy in place is an important step in that process. This policy should be sure to cover what is deemed unacceptable behaviour, in addition to clearly defining the manner in which the company recruits and manages its employees.

In terms of behaviour however, it remains the individual’s responsibility to ensure that they abide by and enforce those policies when interacting with their colleagues.  As passionate recruiters, we have always believed that people should only ever be selected based on skills and experience and once in the job, that the staff member is treated appropriately. This is something we strive to implement with the rigorous training of our staff and in-depth interviewing of our candidates, to ensure we can present them in their most positive light rather on their personal characteristics.

There's no reason that anyone should endure discrimination of any kind within the workplace, be it gender motivated or otherwise. This means demonstrating respect and fairness towards all whom one interacts with - an approach that anyone can adopt with no difficulty, but a concept that unfortunately Mr Gray and his colleagues do not appear to have grasped.

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Karen Cole, commercial director, Alexander Lloyd

Karen Cole, commercial director, Alexander Lloyd

Karen Cole has over 14 years experience in the recruitment industry and is the commercial director for Alexander Lloyd, specialist recruitment consultants based in Crawley, West Sussex.