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Warning: Women at Work!

Battle of Ideas Satellite Debate

Research for the Institute of Leadership and Management earlier this year indicated 73% of women believe the ‘glass ceiling’ still exists, and this is borne out particularly when it comes to top-level management jobs (only 12% of FTSE 100 directors are women). Despite this, women workers have made major strides since the Ford machinists’ strike led to the Equal Pay Act 1970, as dramatised in the recent film Made in Dagenham. While there are still chauvinists in the high-powered world of business who think women are best suited for administrative roles – if not the kitchen sink - in truth women no longer suffer the gross discrimination they once did. Most workplaces are desperate to recruit more women to senior positions, and even some feminists acknowledge it is women themselves who sometimes choose less demanding careers in order to take responsibility for their children, inevitably earning less money and prestige.
The very idea of equality in the workplace is no longer just about this one issue. The 238-page Equality Act 2010 is intended to protect workers against discrimination not only on the grounds of sex, but also race, age, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief and sexual orientation. Moreover, the act goes beyond prohibiting direct discrimination: employers will also be responsible for ‘perceived discrimination’ and ‘third-party harassment’. As one HR website explains: ‘If a heterosexual is perceived to be gay, lesbian or bisexual – perhaps because of mannerisms or rumours – and becomes the butt of banter’, or ‘if an employee is subjected to joking about their partner’s disability or a friend’s sexual orientation’, they have grounds for complaint. Should we welcome this as an extension of women’s struggle for equal treatment, or has the historic fight for equal rights at work now been reduced to policing one another’s comments and attitudes, and running off to the boss if colleagues indulge in un-PC banter?
Do the much quoted statistics on women failing to reach the top of the ladder really merit a fight for equality, or does a narrow focus on the top corporate jobs miss the point that different people make different choices? Should we, at the very least, focus more on practical obstacles like the lack of child-care options, rather than conjuring up misogynist employers and blaming supposedly sexist attitudes? Do we need to examine workplace issues through the historical prism of gender and oppression at all? Indeed, is equality something we should be worried about at the moment? In the middle of a recession, with public sector cuts and new redundancies announced daily, is arguing for workplace equality a non-starter? Or will women have a fight on their hands to ensure job cuts don’t undo the progress made over the past few decades? Which way forward for women at work?
Linda Bellos
chair, Institute of Equality and Diversity Practitioners

Anne Fergusson
director, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Jason Smith
freelance journalist; director, Birmingham Salon

Nina Powell, chair
PhD candidate, researcher, psychology, University of Birmingham

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions and Institute of Ideas members) per person.
Tickets are available on the door or in advance from the Institute of Ideas website.
All Welcome


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