Recently, I was working with a respected colleague on a content strategy for a female client. Knowing that our client is deeply involved in high-profile forums for women in business and is a regular speaker at high-profile events, I suggested that she might want to build on this.
My male colleague winced, visibly. “The women thing…I don’t know.” His implication was that the subject of women’s inclusion in the industry was old hat. Despite this, in the course of our discussion he went on to make several references to how male-dominated it was – even mentioning at one point that I was the only woman he’d ever encountered in my sort of role.
During the rest of our conversation, I asked myself: was he right? Having given the matter some reflection, I don’t think so. Here are just a few reasons why.
Talking about women still makes men uncomfortable
When I was born, feminism was already at least a decade past its most violent years. I’m in my mid-30s now and men still find conversations about women – and female experience – hard to stomach. A week or so ago I had a male colleague tell me that it was TMI to mention periods in the context of an article about a cycle tracking device. Really? This sort of squeamishness is unacceptable. If we want to live in a world where everyone – female, male, gay, straight, cis, trans – can feel comfortable sharing their experience of being a human, we need to shut this discomfort down. And doing so means sharing female narratives and experiences in every context – including the spheres of business and work.
Women still need visibility
The disproportionate male domination of business is not changing quickly enough. While women cut a streak as entrepreneurs, Only 7% of FTSE 100 companies are led by women – and given the fact that more than 50% of the UK’s population is female, we need to keep talking about why that is the case. We can’t keep hiding behind the excuse that motherhood gets in the way either – 20% of UK women never even have children. We should focus more on the fact that C-level execs are chosen by their peers – and many men don’t understand women enough to see them as peers.
Women are not an ‘issue’ to be resolved
By implying narratives around women are ‘done’, my colleague was suggesting women have now been successfully absorbed into the male business world and are no longer an ‘issue’ to be resolved. This attitude is problematic because it reinforces the working world as a male space that women have the right to enter but not to change. It also suggests that women need to be pacified – and in the process silenced. Talking about our experience as women is an important way to ensure not only that ‘male’ ceases to be the default, but also that our views and voices shape the world in which we work.
Equality shouldn’t mean being absorbed by men
If we set absorption as the goal for equality, we completely ignore the fact that women’s identity and experience is different – especially in the workplace. As David Parry-Jones has illustrated in his 50 Days of Male Privilege Statements posts, much of what is normal for women is completely unheard of by men. It’s not just a case of being underpaid and overlooked: women frequently have to restructure their careers – either through choice or responsibility – in ways that men don’t. Women rarely have a straight upwards career path and are more likely to make sideways moves. And these experiences have put women at the forefront of developing new ways of working. If we close down narratives around female experience in the workplace, we also close down narratives about, work-life balance, career design and the changing structure of work.
Closing down narratives around women – considering them out of fashion, inconvenient, or already dealt with – reduces the needs and perspectives of a large proportion of the world’s workforce to an afterthought. It also helpfully ignores many ongoing issues that affect people of all genders. As we start to increase our awareness of identities beyond the binary, conversations that challenge the male default are becoming even more vital. And we should all be having them.