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Let’s all fight back against workplace inequity | accountingweb
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Let’s all fight back against workplace inequity

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On International Women’s Day, Lucy Cohen shares a frightening personal story that highlights how inequitable life still is for women, even strong ones.

8th Mar 2023
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This isn’t the article I’d planned to write for International Women’s Day this year. I’d planned to write a stirring piece about the difference between equality and equity, and what we need to do to work for gender equity in our businesses.

But then, on 2 February, something terrifying happened. And in less than one minute, I was reminded that I am a woman, and in so many areas of my world, I do not have equity.

It was a crisp and sunny Thursday morning and I was going about my day as usual. Dog walk, coffee and morning meetings from my home office. When the doorbell rang and a strange man stood there claiming to have an appointment, I assumed an admin error somewhere, a simple mix-up. After some firm assurance by me that he was at the wrong house, I closed the door and went back to my day.

Half an hour later, that same man returned, rang the doorbell, and when I answered the door, tried to assault me and enter my house.

You can never know how you’ll react in a situation like that. Thankfully my instinct was to grab the dog pen by the front door, use it to fight him off, slam and hurriedly lock my door. Shaking and totally bewildered, I rang the police, who handled things brilliantly.

It’s an inequitable world

Physically I am fine. I was lucky. But in that moment and the weeks that have followed, I have been reminded of a truth – I am a woman and as such, the world is still inequitable for me. 

I’m not often presented with my differences as a woman so starkly. I run my own company, so I don’t have to deal with the gender politics that so many women do in larger corporate structures. I’m 40 years old now, and after a 16-year career in a male-dominated space, I see positive changes in female representation. I’m also physically strong – a former British Team powerlifter who can lift weights way in excess of my (and most men’s) body weight. Most of the time, I’m not faced with my woman-ness, my other-ness, because I have created a world for myself where I can be powerful.

Gender adjustments

This incident made me pause, though, and think about all the ways that I, and most other women, make adjustments for the fact of our gender.

I travel alone a lot for business and, over the years, hadn’t fully realised the number of habits I have acquired to keep myself safe. I’m sure that many women reading this will have adopted a few of these themselves. 

I’ve got the “don’t talk to me” headphones for all train journeys. I search out well-lit parking and will take any route on foot that is longer to avoid walking through an underpass alone. I’ll always book first class on a train when I travel at night because there is less chance of being bothered by the inebriated and it feels safer. I book into hotels with well-staffed receptions. Invariably, these things cost more money or take more time – is that the price of feeling safe as a woman navigating the world solo?

I was reminded of a recent conversation with a cabbie on my way to my hotel from Paddington station. He commented on my choice of hotel, flabbergasted that I’d pick something “that pricey” if I were only travelling for work.

“My mate stays over there when he works in London,” he said, pointing to a hotel we were driving past. “It’s only £60 a night. You have to share a bathroom, but it’s much cheaper than where you’re staying.” 

I paused, weighing up whether I had the energy to explain to him why I wouldn’t stay there. In the end, I went with: “I don’t think I’d be comfortable sharing a bathroom when I’m travelling on my own.”

“Oh. Right. Of course,” he said. It was clear that was something he, as a man, had never really considered.

Taking precautions

There are many other things that women do regularly, automatically, to try to feel safe. Walking back to a car with our keys between our fingers, pretending to talk on the phone when walking alone at night, carrying personal alarms, and avoiding walking in poorly lit areas. So many of us do all of this without thinking. All of this takes energy to do, and it’s evidence of how inequity seeps into all parts of our lives.

It would never occur to my husband to arrange his work travel around safety. Convenience, sure. Value for money, of course. But personal safety when travelling in the UK is something that doesn’t cross his mind. Yet most women will do the mental juggling and pay the extra money to make sure their journey is, first and foremost, safe. Most of us do it subconsciously. All of that takes energy that we’re not putting into something else. 

It might be easy to say that I’m overreacting. Or that my experience last month was just rotten bad luck. 

But it’s not overreacting. And it’s not just bad luck. All of the things I have mentioned above are done by women every single day. And we do it because every single week in the UK, two women lose their lives at the hands of men.

Violence against women has been front and centre in the press recently. Revelations about the Met police, the conviction of David Carrick, Jeremy Clarkson’s rant about Meghan Markle, and the shooting of Emma Pattison and her daughter Lettie by George Pattison – all headlines in the past eight weeks.

You’d think that there would be a mass outcry. You would think that people might start thinking about how the way women are spoken about could be contributing to a society that continues to put them at risk. Yet when, amid its own controversies over the treatment of women in the Welsh Rugby Union, there was a decision made to ban choirs from singing the Tom Jones song, Delilah (a catchy tune about a man murdering his ex), there was a furore. Swathes of people claiming that everything was too “woke”. One pub in Cardiff decided that as a protest, it would play the song non-stop all day. Charming.

What’s my point?

I’m sure there will be plenty of people wondering why I’ve written this in a business publication. Why on earth is any of this relevant?

Bear with me.

When I told my friends about what had happened to me, I had the following response from several people: “I’m surprised you didn’t beat the cr*p out of him. He really picked the wrong house with you!”

As flattering as it is that people think I am strong enough and brave enough to Buffy the Vampire Slayer my way out of any situation, women shouldn’t have to be Xena Warrior Princess to be able to move about their lives feeling safe. We have to start taking the job of equity seriously. At best, a lack of equity limits opportunities for women and contributes to discriminatory structures. At worst, it endangers our lives.

So down to business (pun intended). What do we do?

I’m once again going to call for allyship from all the men. Start by calling out the locker-room talk, the assumption that the woman in the meeting will take the minutes or make the tea, and the non-inclusive networking events. If you turn up to a meeting and it’s just a sea of male faces, be brave enough to ask the question: “Where are the women?”

Equity in business

Next, I’m going to ask that all of us who run businesses think about lessening the mental load for women. When it comes to travel, make sure that your expense policies are comprehensive enough to let everyone book somewhere they feel safe to stay, or travel in a safe way. Review your handbooks to include solo working policies. Do the work, so women don’t have to.

Putting on an evening event? Have you thought about when everyone is kicked out at 2am and how people will get home? If the event is in a more remote area, taxis can be hard to come by. Do you want to leave your guests wandering the streets alone in the early hours of the morning?

And if you ever need to provide safety equipment, make sure that it’s actually designed for women – don't just hand them smaller versions of male clothes. My good friend Katherine Evans got so fed up with simply being handed out small men’s clothes that she created Bold as Brass, a support network and community for women in construction, mining and quarrying.

Equity and equality, while linked, are different things. “Equality is giving everyone a shoe. Equity is giving everyone a shoe that fits,” said Dr Naheed Dosani.

As women, we do face different challenges in the workplace and beyond. Let’s all do our utmost to make sure that workplace equity is one less hurdle for us to leap over daily.