We know that history has a habit of coming full circle. Back in the 1930s, the young women taken on at the Rowntree factory had to undergo pre-employment medical and dental checks and one woman recalls the removal of two back teeth on her first day at work, aged just 14.
Modern ears (non-American ones especially) may be surprised to hear about the blatant intrusion of medical care into employee relations, but fast forward to 2014 and Facebook and Apple are offering egg freezing to female staff in the US. Does this mark a return to paternalistic management and is this a sign of the dwindling power of women in the IT sector?
What could be construed as a generous, even enlightened, offer by an employer, can also be viewed in a pretty sinister light. One possible message is: 'We own you and don’t even bother thinking about the attention-diverting business of reproduction until we’ve finished getting what we need out of you. So we’ll look after your eggs in the freezer until you’re clapped out and some 18-year-old programmer on his skateboard can take over your role.'
The plight of women within IT - who represent just 30% of the workforce in the US and 20% in the UK - was brought into sharp focus last week as Microsoft’s boss Satya Nadella again put his foot in his mouth by encouraging women at his company to trust in ‘karma’ and wait patiently for their pay rise. ‘Nice girls don’t ask,’ was the message that everyone received. Nadella later apologised for his comments.
Alison McDermott, co-founder of the Diversity consultancy, ‘More2gain’ isn’t sure Apple and Facebook’s offer is a win-win for women in IT. ‘The initiative is well-intentioned and intending to increase choice and flexibility but I think that most women would prefer to be able to combine children and work with ease and not have to postpone child-bearing,’ she said.
‘The onus appears to be on the women to adapt and "fix" the intractable problem of combining career and children and I am very concerned about the message this sends out.’
So it seems that attracting and retaining women in IT will take a lot more than medical enticements. According to a landmark report by the Work and Technology Research Centre at www-ICT, 'There is a 'masculine culture' in computing work consisting of language, images, working methods and working relationships which women are both excluded from and find off-putting.'
Not all women are put off by this work environment, but the report suggests that companies who claim to be 'gender-neutral' are, in reality, gender-blind, failing therefore to notice or act upon gender inequalities. It means that women working in the sector have to fit in since there is little evidence that the industry is looking to understand different workplace practices and cultures.
One woman in the sector, for example, recently wrote, ‘It’s not that women aren’t interested in science and technology as reports seem to suggest; it’s that they don’t like the constant feeling of being offended and denigrated.’ Another reports, ‘It is a male dominated, macho environment and the culture does not even accept men who are not macho.’
As if that is not bad enough, another woman laments, ‘Women are judged by double standards – if they are pushy they are seen as abrasive. If a woman is too quiet she is overlooked and if she is assertive this seems to offend some social norm as to how women are expected to behave.’
So maybe Facebook and Apple, companies in which 70% of the workforce are men, need to put as much emphasis on women-friendly cultures and policies as on technologically advanced policies such as egg-freezing. Real empowerment of women comes from creating an environment in which men and women’s needs as employees and parents are fairly reflected - and this involves a focus on the human rather than the technical.
Rowntrees’ efforts at looking after its female employees in the early years of the nineteenth century were a model for its time but the twenty first century should have moved on from Victorian paternalism. Focusing on the culture of an organisation, and its effect on the diversity of staff working there, is likely to have far more impact in the long-term than intervening in women’s wombs.
Gloria Moss is professor of management and marketing at Buckinghamshire New University and a fellow of the CIPD. Her book ‘Why men like straight lines and women like polka dots’ will be published at the end of November.
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