Challenging beliefs – #3: Women are treated equally to men on the labour market and in the office

Equality between men and women. It sounds so simple. And in theory, men and women should have equal access to jobs, be treated equally at work, and paid equally for the same work. While there are numerous pieces of legislation prohibiting discrimination between men and women on the labour market, there are still many examples where men and women are not treated equally – in some countries more than others – based on the stereotype that men do a better job. While research has confirmed that women are often better organised, better time-managers, multi-taskers and even better educated, inequality still exists to a large extent.

While there have been recent initiatives to promote more female representation in higher level jobs, in most countries and offices, men are still dominating the work place (except in health, social work and education). [For just a quick example, see here the sadly (non-)amusing case of Cellular Solutions.] The idea that men should be providing for the family often leads to men being the main source of income and women thereby working part-time or not at all. In some countries, women are even laid off upon marriage.

Gender labour participation gap - World Bank (2011)
Gender labour participation gap in the Middle East and Northern Africa – World Bank (2011)

In the expat environment, I often see how women follow their husbands/boyfriends around, but it is less common to see men follow their wives/girlfriends around (and a personal note to the ladies who have found an ambitious man who is not afraid to let you lead: he’s a keeper!).

And when it comes to access to jobs, applying to jobs, in theory employers should not discriminate between the genders – unless the office has a current imbalance and hiring one gender over the other when they qualify the same (but when do two people qualify exactly the same?) would help towards correcting this imbalance. Yet, I know many cases whereby potential prospective employers asked my female friends whether they were asked whether they have a family or have plans to start a family. On one occasion, the interviewer noted that my female friend was married and has a child and he asked whether she would be willing to sacrifice her family life for the job. (By the way, I was once asked what languages I speak ‘at home’, despite of me not having any accent in either Dutch or English – this person clearly did not like the way I looked – too young, with a different ethnic background. And this was to become a trainee with the Dutch judiciary, before I got my first human rights job. Those people know better, but it shows that discrimination happens everywhere, on all kinds of grounds. I just call it a blessing in disguise – I could have been doing that instead of what I have been doing now for the past four years!)

When it comes to salary, men still get significantly more pay for the same jobs. Recently, campaigns in New Zealand and Australia showed that men earn $5k-$15k per annum more than women, just for being a male (or as they put it ‘have a penis’) and through these campaigns they ask support for passing the Equal Pay Bill and similar legislation. This is the case in many countries; men are paid more for doing the same job, simply for being a man. Economists and feminist scholars have argued that this is due to systemic gender-based discrimination and stereotypes in the workplace.Gender pay gap in the EU

Gender pay gap in the EU – Eurostat (2008)

Even in countries where there is equal pay legislation, and in offices with clear salary ranges, often there is still hidden inequality in pay as the men get a salary raise or a higher paid job more often/easily than women (women account for less than a third of senior managers in the OECD and only one woman for every ten men gets to the board room) or women tend to work part-time more often than men (one out of four women as compared to less than one out of ten men).

Many aspects that cause the gender gap and discrimination between men and women are connected to the conventional thought that women should be the caretakers while men are the breadwinners. Even in cases where there is no clear discrimination, there are often subtle forms of discrimination or gender-based judgement. A woman faces judgement from her colleagues if she leaves on time to tend to her family, while men would be considered responsible and good fathers if they do so. On the other hand, if a woman chooses to work late all the time, she may be respected at work, but she will be judged by others (family/community/school) for neglecting her family/social duties. A man does not face these issues, because often he will have a wife to take care of the kids (or take the blame). I have heard male managers tell female employees that they should be in the office as long as they are – they have a family life too, why should she leave on time? And this is the problem with having men as the majority of managers – the wrong attitude, lack of understanding and compassion for the situation of women inside and outside the office. As long as she is doing her job well, that is it. She should not choose between a job and a life outside of her job. She should be able to have both.

Let’s switch things around and find a balanced middle way. I would like to see a solution in having more women in high level jobs and also in having more men as stay at home caretakers and/or part-time workers. If it is good enough for your wife, it is good enough for you. And if your husband can do the job, you can do the job.

“We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”

“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”


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