Women in the Workplace

House of Commons Business, Innovations and Skills Committee – Women in the Workplace Report

Today the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee published its report of the enquiry into Women in the Workplace, which drew on 103 written submissions, oral evidence from 46 witnesses, and many more responses to discussions on Woman’s Hour and Mumsnet.

It’s a thorough report, and also a well-written and engaging read. However, those who live with or advise on the issues affecting women in the workplace will not be surprised by the content – it is generally all too familiar. The usual sticking points are all here: stereotypes and gender representation, equality legislation and equal pay, flexible working, maternity leave and childcare, the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the lack of women in senior positions. It acts as a usual summary of where we, as a culture, are at with regard to these persistent obstacles and discusses some of the reasons why we are still wrestling with them over 40 years after the Equal Pay Act came into force.

What did surprise me was that the report opened with a section entitled ‘Nature or Nurture?’ which explored whether the disproportionate number of women in particular professions had biological or cultural origins. Mike Buchanan from the Campaign for Merit in Business stated that “the male brain is better for systemising and the female brain for empathising” and sociologist Catherine Hakim claimed that only “20% of women in all societies are work-centred and careerist in the way men are”. I don’t know anything about the research on which these statements are based, but I wonder what conclusions the committee were expected to draw from them. If men are inherently better at systemising, should women not be expected or encouraged to think systematically, nor expected to enter careers where the ability to make logical deductions is essential? If women are inherently better at empathising, should we expect men to deal dispassionately with their fellow human beings, to be absent from the caring professions and ‘hands-off’ as fathers? Similarly, is being work-centric and careerist really what typifies men? Is women’s success in any career dependent on how much they can be ‘like men’ in putting their jobs above everything else?

I am surprised that we are still discussing this in 2013. Surely Ann Oakley nailed it with ‘Sex, Gender and Society‘ in 1972, 5 years before I was born. If we look around the world at the wide variety of roles adopted by men and women in different cultures, I think it’s clear that the cultural expectations of men and women have a much heavier influence than any slight biological differences in the way we think. Interpreting these cultural norms, the status quo, as what both sexes really want only serves to limit men and women alike and prevent them reaching their potential and giving full expression to all they are and are capable of. I breathed a sigh of relief when, on hearing further evidence, the committee decided that “the root of the problem of the stereotyping of jobs come from the cultural context in which careers decisions are made, not from innate differences between men and women”.

I’m particularly glad that this evidence came from the reknowned physicist Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Bola Fatimilehin of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and engineers Claire O’Connor and Charlotte Dunford. Women from fields very similar to mine, requiring a very similar skill-set, speaking about how fulfilling they found their work. This is what we need to hear more of – the stories of women in ‘atypical’ careers who are happy to be found thriving where mainstream culture does not expect them.

I will reiterate what I told the committee, that “we need more visible, accessible and inspirational female role models from a wide variety of careers, and to enable access to those role models for young women at all stages of their education”. ScienceGrrl, a network of people passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and maths to the next generation, has a significant role to play in showing women the opportunities that are open to them. And by that, I don’t just mean the fulfilling careers themselves, but that it is possible to have a career in STEM and related fields and the other things you want in your life too; being ‘work-centred and careerist’ is not the only route to professional success or personal happiness. Most pertinently, it is possible to be who are you are, and do science…or whatever else you were made to do.