By Antonia Sudkaemper
I am a feminist. I also support the feminist cause through my research, which focuses on gender equality in the workplace. Expressing both my personal and my professional interest and supporting a cause close to my heart, I happily shared an article (see below) on Facebook written by the never-tiring Guardian feminist Jessica Valenti. The article pointed out that men, by working within and benefiting from a discriminatory system, contributed to female occupational disadvantage for decades. Valenti argues that men therefore bear responsibility for achieving gender equality; men as well as women should be fighting for more equal chances at the workplace. The argument was very much in line with previous research, my own research, and common sense. Or so I thought.
Waking up the next morning I found an abundance of notifications on my otherwise rather quiet Facebook account. They were not likes, no, in fact I am certain that the men who commented would have wholeheartedly embraced the option of a dislike button on this occasion. I was surprised; the article merely seemed to point out a few rather self-evident actualities and I did not expect anyone to become angered about these. Engaging in conversation with said commenters, however, I realized that many of the facts that are so crystal clear to me are, in fact, not as clear to people who are not being paid to spend a large part of their days reading and thinking about gender inequality. I am happy to use this platform throughout the coming weeks to discuss some of the reactions to the article. While dedicating each blog post to one topic captured in a quote from the comments I received in response to the article, I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to engage with the research results I will present, after all, gender equality is a topic that concerns and benefits all genders.
“I have had three female bosses, I do not believe in gender inequality.”
Yes, a lot has been achieved in terms of gender equality and we are celebrating it. However, although individuals may have had exclusively female bosses or a fair share of these in their lifetimes, this experience is not the norm. It is important to remember that an individual’s experience doesn’t always match the broader truth captured by overarching statistics. The majority of power positions are still filled by men: 95.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are male, 82% of full professors in Europe are male, 78% of national parliamentarians are also male. Moreover, it is crucial to inspect the specific positions women inherit.
While the glass ceiling might exhibit an increasing number of cracks, it is at the same time replaced by other barriers. Exploring myriads of data from a variety of contexts Prof. Michelle Ryan and Prof. Alexander Haslam coined the term “glass cliff” describing the phenomenon that many of the positions women are promoted to are extremely precarious and entail a large chance of failing. For instance, it was shown that women are a lot more likely to be promoted when a company has experienced financial decline for some time. However, with the broader society not being aware of the initial precariousness of the position, inevitable failing will deliver apparent evidence that women cannot and should not be in leading positions. Due to the limited number of women in leading positions and the representativeness of the few who are leading, such lack of success will reflect negatively not only on the specific individual, but on women at large. Similarly, a few women in power positions might also be a result of tokenism rather than genuine attempts to establish gender equality. Strategically placing a woman in a power position will delude employees and the larger public by superficially communicating inclusiveness, which will make it considerably harder for people to detect other, more subtle, forms of gender discrimination.
Whilst women in power positions are certainly a step in the right direction, by no means do they signify that gender inequality no longer exists. Concluding this would be equivalent to assuming that racism in all its forms suddenly vanished in North America when the United States elected a president of colour. Sexism in organisations has become a lot more subtle and a lot less blatant over the past decades, but has not ceased to exist. Ironically, the gain of a few token women in (arguable) positions of power might make it harder for women to fail against gender discrimination. How can there possibly be any kind of inequality within an organisation when one woman has already reached the top of the career ladder!?
- Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions.
If you enjoyed reading this and/or liked to learn about the topic of gender equality, watch out for next week’s post discussing the quote “She is talking about women only, but men also experience lots of disadvantage.”
Antonia Sudkaemper is a PhD student at the university of Exeter. Her research focuses on gender equality. You can learn more about Antonia on her website, www.antoniasudkaemper.com , or by following her on twitter, @ASudkaemper.