The problem with being right about a sensitive issue like gender equality is that it pulls you towards a black and white view of the world. The other side’s position is so clearly abhorrent that there can be no room for understanding, let alone respecting it.
They must be idiots. Or ignorant. Or just assholes.
These people definitely exist, but it is dangerous to so reduce all those with whose opinions you disagree, because you can never defeat an enemy that you do not understand.
Why, then, do chauvinist bosses have a problem with hiring, promoting and paying women equally?
Dinner with a dinosaur
The chauvinist 'point of view' was best explained to me at a black tie dinner a few years ago. Sitting next to me was an older gentleman who owned a small publishing firm. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned MT’s long history of championing women in business.
Maybe he misheard me.
There followed a smiling rant about why he didn’t like to hire women. ‘What’s the point in hiring someone, spending all that money developing them, if they’re going to go and get themselves pregnant in a couple of years and disappear again? It’s more trouble than it’s worth.’
My mouth opened, goldfish-like, as he swilled his port and stuffed his mouth with cheese.
‘Of course, you can’t say that these days.’
I confess, I didn’t have an answer that night. Politeness can be a curse. I changed the subject, then shortly afterwards excused myself. When I returned, I began talking to the gentleman on the other side (there were only a handful of women on our table). I didn’t take the sexist dinosaur (let’s call him Barney) to task on the issue, and I regret it.
To make up for it, I’m going to have a go now.
There are of course many reasons, psychological and cultural, that feed into chauvinism. However, what the dinosaur said indicates his views on women at work are firmly connected to issues around pregnancy and raising a family.
It’s a common view and it should be understood and addressed. Here it goes:
- Women are statistically likely to require greater commitments of time and energy for family matters (pregnancy and child care) than men.
- Therefore women will put less into their work and will be more likely to spend time away from it.
- All other things (e.g. talent, experience) being equal, it is rational to hire and promote a man over a woman as the statistical risk of disruption is less (he’d probably have said the same thing about disabled workers too, for the same reason).
This is not necessarily an irrational view. On a purely statistical level, there may be some truth there – even with shared parental leave in place, women do on average take more time off if and when they have children, though that's not the same as saying mothers give less to their careers.
In either case, he’s still wrong, because he misses the point.
For a start, you don’t hire or promote a statistic, but a person. There are countless mothers who make it work, contributing just as much as the fathers in the office. There are also numerous men who make a decision to take substantial time out to raise their children. And of course there are many men and women who decide not to have children, for whom this isn't an issue.
Judging people on their sex or their family situation rather than their individual merits is not only unfair, but also a bad business decision.
It is this that must be used to counter the dinosaurs, as they won’t be swayed by an appeal to morals or decency.
Bring it back to the business case
You could argue it shouldn’t be necessary to restate the business case for treating male and female employees equally, but evidently it is.
It’s not just that our dinosaur (whose business was hardly thriving, by the way) was missing out on half the talent available to him. It’s not even just that he was less likely to get the best out of the women who already worked for him (would you want to stay there any longer than you had to?).
It’s also that he’d made a business which all sorts of people – women, minorities, the disabled and indeed men who don’t think it’s okay to spout such views to complete strangers over a cheeseboard – would want to avoid.
So yes, while offering parents flexibility in the workplace may not always be easy in a small business, it is worth it – and so is just being decent.
The vast majority of old, white, straight men I’ve met in business – and there a lot of them – have been perfectly decent and indeed usually exasperated about the ongoing problem of gender inequality.
But there are some dinosaurs out there, who are unlikely to be convinced by an argument about what’s fair. They believe that they are acting out of business sense, probably because of experiences that in their minds back it up.
If they’re to die out, figuratively speaking, we need to get through to them, and that means making the business case for gender equality, loud and clear, again and again.