This is a note I posted on Facebook during my campaign. It was aimed not only my opponent (who responded, very well, and we had a good debate) but at students who I had been talking to on campus. Just thought I’d share it on here…
Whilst running for Women’s Officer I have come across some interesting (to be polite) ideas which I felt needed a response. In one of my shout-outs where I pointed out that the UK has the widest gender-pay gap in the EU for full-time work, a (female) student replied that “if women worked harder, they’d get paid the same”. Secondly, the practical solutions offered as “down to earth” feminist policies seem to me to be quite bizarre, and I’d like to challenge them and replace them with my own suggestions.
The proposition of ‘workshops’ where women are taught to be assertive in the workplace is a policy I fundamentally disagree with and one which is couched in the overriding patriarchal discourse that underpins our society. Discrimination in the workplace does not take place because women aren’t as assertive as their male-counterparts (and implying that it does smacks of entrenched patriarchal ideology to be honest); it is because of existing discriminatory structures which limit women’s capabilities to further their careers.
- First of all, research has shown that employers are more resistant to women’s attempts to exert influence and be assertive than to men’s. A 2007 study by Carnegie Mellon and Harvard researchers divided 119 volunteers into random groups and were asked to play the role of interviewer for a hypothetical job. They were briefed on all the ‘candidates’ all of whom were described as exceptionally qualified and talented, the variable being that some candidates accepted the offered salary whilst others tried to negotiate. The pattern that emerged was that female candidates who negotiated were far more likely to be penalised for negotiating than males, with them being perceived as ‘less nice’. Further studies confirmed this: across all experiments male volunteers were less willing to work with women who negotiated. This suggests that it is not lack of assertiveness on female employees’ behalf that stops their progress, but a set of unwritten codes in the workplace about ‘appropriate’ gender behaviour. Unless we challenge the basic underlying problem here, teaching UoB graduates to be assertive will have no effect whatsoever, however hard that is to accept.
- In terms of practical solutions, they can be found at a national level. As long as unequal division of childcare is heavily institutionalised, with the amount of statutory maternity leave far exceeding that of paternity leave, employers will see women of child-bearing age as high-risk and avoid employing and promoting them. If the division of child-care was left to the parents to divvy up, as in other European countries, employers wouldn’t be able to discriminate to such a great degree; because they won’t be able to pin-point ‘high-risk’ candidates. This is massively beneficial for men as well, with many men wishing to have greater participation in caring for their child.
- Finally, as long as women remain the primary care-givers (and traditions tend to take a long time to change), they will remain stuck beneath the glass ceiling until flexible working hours become standard practice in the UK. It is very difficult for working mothers to compete with those unencumbered with the tasks of taking children to school and picking them up, for example. Women are commonly faced with the choice of maximising their career or starting a family.
To some, national debates over gender issues do not seem like ‘student politics’, and perhaps beyond the remit of a mere Guild Officer. But as far as I see it, as long as the female graduates leaving the University of Birmingham are faced with discrimination, it should be the responsibility of the Women’s Officer to take part in the national debate which might actually achieve real change, push for national demonstrations, rally the students at her University to participate in the process of improving their own prospects, and fight discrimination in the workplace at its very core. That is why a campaigning, protesting, fighting Student Union is a vital component of the University experience. Afterall, who wants to graduate top of their year just to be sacked when becoming pregnant?