‘The 1950’s called. They said we’ve borrowed their gender stereotypes for too long and now they’d like them back’. 

OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. After all, we’ve come a long way since then. There are more women in paid work today than at any previous point in history. Women are gaining increasing access to careers in STEM (previously the preserve of men). Indeed, later this week, our second-ever female Prime Minister will meet with the newly inaugurated President Trump. (Let’s hope he can keep his trademark sexist remarks in check, for the sake of the ‘special relationship’).

Thankfully, we are a far cry from the world of the 1950’s. A world in which being a woman with ambitions towards a career was an uphill struggle. In 1957 both of my parents left school with admirable academic records, more than worthy of the career in medicine for which they each (successfully) applied. No prizes for guessing which of them was asked repeatedly during the medical school interview process whether or not they were ‘sure that a career in nursing wouldn’t be more suitable?’. If that happened in today’s world, it would spark outrage.

But for all the good we have achieved with the ‘big stuff’ – the policies on gender diversity, the Equality Act 2010, and campaigning that has led to reviews of practices over pay, progression, promotion and flexibility across the gender divide – are we doing enough to zone in on the small things? The things that, left unchecked, will continue to erode the progress of gender diversity in the workplace. A recent article in CIPD’s People Management magazine highlighted the concept of ‘everyday sexism’ in the workplace. It belongs firmly back in the 1950’s, and yet it is still alive and well in the modern workplace.

Everyday sexism isn’t overt. It doesn’t stare at cleavages or make lewd remarks. But there are examples of it all over the place. We’re all guilty of it, whether we are dishing it out or accepting it without question. It’s the small things, but collectively they add up to one big thing: stereotype.

Much of it is absurd, too, when you really stop and think about it. Take the recent furore over the temp who was sent home from her administrative job in the offices of PwC for not wearing high heels. Can you even begin to imagine an alternative male scenario? (‘Buttons on your shirt cuffs? Heavens above, man, have you taken leave of your senses? You can’t possibly do the task at hand wearing anything other than cufflinks.’). Yet, here we are, in 2016, conforming to the more than out dated principle that fashion, rather than function, wins the day where women’s corporate dress code is concerned.   One can only wonder at the madness of sending a perfectly presentable and capable member of staff home for the singular gain of her returning to the workplace two inches taller, yet two hours behind on her contribution to the day’s output. The sad fact is that, although this particular story grabbed the attention of the media, there will have been plenty of companies scurrying away to anxiously review their dress code requirements in its wake.

As much as societal norms and expectations have influenced company policy, they’ve also shaped individual attitudes. For the most part, these attitudes are just accepted with resigned frustration. But, junior lawyer, Charlotte Proudman famously (and reasonably) took issue some months back when her LinkedIn profile received unwanted attention. Why unwanted? Because the comments all related to her appearance as a woman, with no reference whatsoever to the plethora of other information on her profile, such as skills, experience, or expertise (all of which, in the context of a professional networking forum, would have been far more appropriate things to engage with her over). Again, it seems highly implausible that an equivalent male contemporary would have been reached out to by a female, as if he were participating in an online speed dating exercise.

There’s a whole minefield of areas in which everyday sexism can creep into the workplace. Office banter can be a particularly dangerous area, and one that can apply inappropriate labels (and pressure) to both genders. Whether it’s a male or a female colleague leaving early to take on parenting responsibilities, the banter, though harmlessly intended, can be relentless (‘see you tomorrow, part-timer’, ‘haven’t you got a wife to do all that’) and it serves to reinforce gender stereotypes and erode the carefully built foundations of gender diversity. Project 28-40 (the UK’s biggest survey on women in the workplace) reported that 69% of women surveyed said that society expects them to put their family before their career, 72% of them feel conflicted in their ability to balance family and work life, and 62% feel pressured to succeed both at work and at home. Maybe the typical office banter doesn’t seem so harmless in the light of these statistics.

That everyday sexism exists is concerning enough. But the bigger problem is how to tackle it. Perhaps that is why we’re better at dealing with the big stuff. After all, you can set boundaries and create consequences for something that can be easily measured and evidenced. Whether discrimination in a recruitment process or a workplace procedure is direct or indirect, a decent investigation will usually prove or disprove it, and the consequences are a significant deterrent. But, when it comes to the less overt and far more unconscious acts of everyday sexism, the line between acceptable and unacceptable, lawful and unlawful, insulting and jocular becomes much harder to define or even recognise. So, then, it is down to awareness raising and education. It is about changing mind-sets and workplace cultures, alongside writing policies and setting rules.

‘I’d hate to be in your shoes’ is a phrase which might resonate very clearly with some of the men working at the offices of Stylist Magazine in London. Hats off to them, because in the immediate aftermath of the PwC high heels debacle, they all ditched their comfortable shoes for a pair of women’s stilettos, and went about their daily routine, on camera, for one day. Never mind running for a bus, walking up and down the stairs, and carrying a mug of coffee, most of them were struggling to maintain an upright stance with any semblance of dignity. The resulting YouTube clip went viral, and gave a humorous slant to a serious problem.

Perhaps everyday sexism in the workplace would be far less rife if more social experiments of this type were conducted?


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