Men, Women and Inequality at Work
Why Men Win at Work … and how we can make inequality history, by Gill Whitty-Coliins, Luath Press, £9.99.
Despite decades of progress, including the introduction of legislation, the world of work – and the experience of being at work – remains significantly different for women and men. Gill Whitty-Collins explores this terrain in this thought-provoking and personal book. Whilst a long-serving corporate executive, the author didn’t directly experience overt discrimination but after becoming increasingly interested in and aware of its detrimental effects on individuals, workplaces and wider society, left the company to become an independent consultant. This book sets out her thinking about gender equality at work.
It is easy to read. Its thoroughly researched style provides compelling arguments that support the core premise that gender inequalities still exist and the odds are stacked against women. Although the book inevitably, given the author’s background, mainly refers to the private sector it has a wider relevance to the public and voluntary sectors.
It provides strategies to make lasting change. The analysis and recommendations are aimed at women and men – especially those who do not yet believe that this is a genuine issue, as well as feminists and (men whom she calls) ‘feMANists’ who do. Whitty-Collins is keen to provide evidence for why men win at work and why greater gender equality is needed..
Many studies confirm that greater gender equality is better for the workplace. Whitty-Collins sets out to answer the key question that unconsciously acts as the major barrier to change – that is that ‘maybe men win at work because they are just better?’ Such a suggestion can be easily debunked through evidence presented that shows that women and men’s achievements are fairly comparable in terms of measured intelligence and education; that companies with women in senior roles perform better – and that employees (both men and women) like working with women managers.
For Whitty-Collins, the continuation of workplace gender inequality is not about men versus women but a waste of talent and reduced organisational impact. She proposes: ‘It’s time for us to end the gender war and stop debating which gender is superior’ (as this continues to put up barriers between women and men) and although women and men may be different: ‘they are equals, and more importantly, there is no intelligence or competency gap between them’.
So, she asks, why do men continue to win at work? As many have observed from their own experience – ‘because the people who promote them believe that they are better than the women’, in other words because men are promoted more than women and therefore take on senior and leadership roles more quickly, they are in pole position to promote other men.
This can also be because of what Whitty-Collins calls the ‘mini-me syndrome’ where men relate more to those who are like them and want to include them in the work setting. If some men in senior roles think that men are better and stronger performers than women, they can make job appointments and promotions that perpetuate a male-dominated senior culture.
It goes without saying culture can determines the success – or fate – of an organisation, as Peter Drucker’s famous comment that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ suggests. Whitty-Collins advocates an empowering organisational culture but states that one dominated by men may be the opposite. Such disadvantage and inequality may go unnoticed by men who feel comfortable within it and therefore continue to propagate male-dominated culture.
The author proposes that a ‘respect gap’ exists, meaning that even non-sexist men have a low opinion of women under the surface. She says that to ensure that women are truly using their brains and capabilities, we need a different work culture that is shared, not just male-dominated.
The book refers to familiar debates on nature and nurture including research by the likes of Simon Baron Cohen (whose views on gender and autism have caused some controversy) that proposes that differences between male and female brains are caused by hormones and divergent development – with male testosterone being linked to risk-taking and conflict, and female estrogen linked to collaboration and consensus. Whitty-Collins suggests that there are many examples where the dominant influence of the former had led individuals and organisations into making the wrong decisions, and refers to the pressure on female leaders, including politicians, to behave in what are seen as masculine ways to gain acceptance.
A chapter on confidence and gravitas covers differences in how men and women speak and hold themselves, and how this affects authority and perceptions about abilities to assume leadership or management roles, Whitty-Collins notes the fact that men typically apply for jobs for which they only possess about two-thirds of the required criteria, whereas women will not feel confident in applying unless they can evidence 100%.
This female reticence and insecurity is noted in data cited that shows that women expect to get paid less than men, and are more affected by negative (and positive) feedback. The linked point that women will often hesitate in speaking at meetings unless they are completely confident in the value or accuracy of their contribution is one that I can certainly relate to.
A familiar concept for many readers will be the ‘imposter syndrome’ that suggests that women often feel that they did not achieve their role / salary / recognition through legitimate means, in other words their own abilities and achievements, and that their success is seen as a mistake. Whitty-Collins prefers to call this the ‘perfectionist syndrome’ viewing it as a curse that holds women back from reaching their potential and making a full contribution in their work role because of a fear of being wrong.
Near the end of the book, the author suggests that the reasons men win at work is for reasons that are mainly ‘unwitting, unconscious or mainly invisible’ but in order for gender inequality to be reversed she sets out a programme for change – aimed at parents and teachers; media makers and providers; organisations and businesses; managers; women and men. This extremely practical manifesto contains useful suggestions, and is followed up by a postscript that acknowledges the additional complexities that have come through the ongoing COVID pandemic.
Published by Edinburgh based Luath Press, this is not a Scottish-specific book and it does leave you wondering what a comprehensive review of gender and work in Scotland might look like. Despite some progress, there would undoubtedly be structural deficits as demonstrated by the excellent work by Kirstin Rummery and others on gender inequality in childcare in Scotland.
If we look at Scotland’s pioneering Gender Representation on Public Bodies (Scotland) Act from 2018 as another example – that required public bodies like NHS Boards, enterprise agencies, Scottish Police Authority, colleges and universities to have equal representation of men and women on their governing boards – as of now, the involvement of women has reached 50%, three years ahead of target, but (according to The Ferret) women get paid less than men – £208 for a daily rate compared to £224 per day for their male counterparts.
This stark statistic demonstrates why this book is recommended reading for those who want to address gender inequality in Scotland and who want to increase women’s contribution within all work settings, not just in the boardroom. ‘We don’t stop ‘til equality’ – as Whitty-Collins’ comments at the end of the final chapter.