Mixed Messages

Blog by Richard Chapman-Harris
Diversity Advisor:  Opportunity Now and Race for Opportunity


I’ve been reading. A lot. Especially articles on gender inclusion. It fascinates me. How can we, as society, still not ‘get it right’ on gender equality, sexual politics and femin-menism? From the Gender Equality Act 1975, through a Gender Equality Duty in 2006 and to the Equality Act 2010, parity between the sexes has been an ongoing battle. Fought by suffragettes, feminists and seemingly the modern man we are entering a further stage in sexual parity that doesn’t seem, I feel, overly consistent in its messaging.

In today’s Shortlist (a free magazine ‘for men with more than one thing on their minds’) the article ‘Phwoar: New Rules for Modern Men’ provides tips on how to manoeuvre the ‘new sexual landscape without neutering yourself entirely.’ The author argues that the female influence has changed gender politics and how society treats women, altering the balance between the sexes. The piece further suggests that ‘all our bosses are going to be women soon’ and that we (as men) need to get used to that. Despite initially suggesting that we position ourselves as feminists it further admits that this is purely to ingratiate ourselves for subsequent (and seemingly inevitable) sexual benefits.

Although I appreciate the relatively ‘digestible’ and popular style of the piece I cannot help but feel patronised and undermined. Suggesting that you should ‘try not to appraise colleagues sexually’ or ‘sign off emails to women with x’s’ is trite and offensive. How stupid do they think men are? Yes, sexual harassment still exists (40% of 18-34 year old women have been sexual harassed in the capital according to a 2012 YouGov poll) but tarring every man with the brush of the few is unfair.

Another piece which clouds blue sky viewing for gender equality is an article on remote working in this month’s CIPD People Management magazine. Emma De Vita’s article cites when Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer banned working remotely to highlight the more positive impact of flexible working. Although the piece outlines the plus side to remote working it overall perpetuates a very gendered message. A 2013 survey by Ipsos MORI found that 70% of over 1,000 office workers felt that they get more done when offered remote working. 38% suggested increased creativity as a further advantage of this agile working solution. This tells me that remote working can have a positive impact for everyone, men and women. However the piece argues that ‘women [are] the most common beneficiaries;’ this is not supported by specific evidence and yet all three visuals used in the piece are of women: Dana Denis-Smith and Annelise Pesa of Obelisk and an animation of a woman with her cat. To me this perpetuates the myth that flexible, remote and agile working arrangements are only there for women. They’re not. Men can benefit from alternative timings, locations and patterns of working just a much, whether to accommodate caring responsibilities or simply to foster a better work-life balance. Despite the article positioning remote working as a positive tool (if managed correctly) it does not reference the positive impact for both genders, nor does it highlight the negative and gendered implications if it is not.

The messages in these two pieces are mixed and prolong the lack of understanding around gender equality in society and the workplace. On one hand men are being told to treat women as equals but then workplace adjustments are feminised and branded as something for women. Feminists may campaign for equality but unconscious bias in the CIPD article reinforces a widely held belief that flexible working is for women only. If only women need this ‘special treatment’ then how can they expect the ‘ogling’ men to respect their female bosses (if they get there in the first place - but that is a whole other argument)?