Most working women don’t wear power suits while juggling a laptop and baby. We need policymaking that recognises a spectrum of disadvantage.
By Kathryn Nawrockyi
Type the words “women in work” into Google Images and you come up against a wall of repetitious – mostly stock – photographs of white women, smartly dressed in tailored suits. Next try typing “working women”: it’s a similar picture, only this time you’ll get a few more images of a woman sitting at the kitchen table looking highly competent while juggling a laptop, a phone and a baby. Popular discourse on women’s equality would have us believe that the white, middle-class, corporate woman is the archetype of the woman who works.
The typical imagery on Google – white, middle-class, suited and stilettoed.
In fact, she is likely to be something of a minority in London, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. And yet hers is still the dominant narrative when we look at where most employers are investing their energies to become more gender-balanced. This is problematic when the majority of debate around women’s equality happens in London, where most large employers are headquartered and many boom industries are centred.
There is much work to be done before we redress the inequalities faced by women in the workplace, particularly to stem the tide of women dropping out of the labour market, which happens in greater numbers in London than in other parts of the country. Some women may drop out of work – or reduce labour market participation – because of the high cost of formal childcare; others may be absent for cultural reasons; or indeed they may be the victims of direct discrimination. The results may be similar but the reasons are complex. So, in London of all places, where we have a greater mix of identities than anywhere else in the country, it is crucial that we make sure that the conversation about (and action on) gender balance includes all women.
Six years ago, the publication of Lord Davies’ review of women on boards – work now led by Sir Philip Hampton and Dame Helen Alexander – quite rightly demanded that FTSE companies do more to increase the number of women on their boards. Over the years that followed, however, the women-on-boards agenda has somewhat drawn focus away from the wider, structural problems of inequality that go beyond just getting more women into leadership: the fact that sexual harassment in the workplace is still hugely prevalent, or that families are still not, for whatever reason, equally sharing the division of unpaid domestic labour, or that occupational segregation means that women continue to be channelled into work that is low-paid and where progression is limited.
In addition, aside from the fact that in 2016 we were still only looking at 26 per cent female board representation in the FTSE 100, 15 a glance at the accompanying 100 Women to Watch list mostly fails to address the diversity of women beyond their sex. I have lost count of the number of debates, panel discussions and awards ceremonies I have attended where women’s equality is the focus, but the roll call of women appearing onstage looks very much like that list, or indeed the typical imagery on Google – white, middle-class, suited and stilettoed. Meanwhile, I have heard so many Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women express frustration that the movement for gender equality in the UK feels like “a white women’s campaign”.
The reality is that women are not one homogeneous group. Women do not all share the same experiences and challenges. They do not all have the same perceptions simply because they are women. Our experiences at work are influenced by multiple aspects of our identity, such as race, age, sexual orientation, class, gender identity, disability, income, culture, religion, and health. Our sex or gender may be the same, but our identities, our successes and our struggles are different.
To understand the complexity of identity and its influence on women’s experience in the workplace requires a conversation about intersectionality. This is a way of understanding the intersection where different parts of our identity meet and how this can result in different, unique experiences – both good and bad. Intersectionality means that a black woman’s experience of the workplace may be different to that of a white woman. A middle-class woman may face inequality, but it may differ from that of a working-class woman. A disabled woman’s experience of exclusion may not be the same as that of a woman who is not disabled.
In a city like London – full to the brim with people from different cultures and backgrounds and experiences, who are in work that may be low-paid, or out-of-hours, or zero-hours contract, or indeed well remunerated or hugely influential – it is all the more relevant and crucial that the campaign for gender equality includes all women.
Why does this matter? It matters that we understand the barriers to equality that all women face, if we are to achieve equality between men and women in positions of power and influence and across society as a whole. It matters because many women do not feel that feminism and the debate about equality includes them. For example: a black woman who walks into a women’s network that is predominantly white may not find that network speaks for her. Progression is hardest for women at the lowest-paid end of the labour market, but there are no receptions in Lancaster House to celebrate those women. As the journalist Natalie Bloomer writes: “The way the debate is currently conducted means it has more to offer the female executive than the woman who serves her lunch.” 16
Unfortunately, the experiences of many women remain unheard, but this is something we at Business in the Community are trying to change. Working in collaboration with photographer Leonora Saunders, Same But Different 17 is a creative project that celebrates and shines a light on the diversity of women in our workplaces. Using imagery alongside narrative, it tells the stories of those women whose voices are often least heard, challenging the ways in which working women are portrayed in the UK today. Since another common criticism of the gender equality debate is that it is too London-centric, Same But Different deliberately invites the stories of women from all over the country. The women we spoke to told us about their vastly diverse experiences of being a woman who works – of how hard it feels to fit in when you’re consistently the only black woman in the room, of what it means to hold down a job while living in an abusive relationship, of learning to accept your self-harm as a coping mechanism for anxiety, of living with cancer, and so many more complexities that should make it impossible to homogenise women.
This individuality is just as true of the participants based in or from London – each story unique to their identities and experiences. Take Dionne, 18 a Senior Nurse working in the NHS, who starts her day at 3.45am and doesn’t get home until 9pm. A black woman, originally from Trinidad, she talks about feeling that she must work so much harder to prove herself. She describes receiving comments about the tone of her voice and her accent – from colleagues – and racist abuse from patients: “And the people around us felt it was acceptable! That surprised me for London; you think London is this big melting pot of diversity, but there are still tensions here.”
Image: Dionne, senior nurse. Photograph by Lerorna Saunders for Same But Different.
Or Fauzia, 19 a 23-year-old British Nigerian Muslim woman, London born and bred, graduate engineer, who describes feeling the need to put her headphones in or dive into a book to block things out whilst travelling around: “Unfortunately if someone acts negatively towards me, I question myself – is it because I’m Black, is it because I’m a woman, is it because I’m Muslim or is it just me?”
Photograph: Fauzia, graduate engineer. Photograph by Lerorna Saunders for Same But Different.
The debate has more to offer the female executive than the woman who serves her lunch.
As humans, we tend to put each other in boxes. London, with its many diverse communities, can also feel isolating, and so it becomes easy to categorise “the Other” so that we don’t have to engage. We all make assumptions: it’s human nature. The question is whether we recognise this in a way that will make a difference – are we open to challenging the way we’ve always viewed the world and other people? When we set out to make Same But Different, it wasn’t an attempt to speak on behalf of women, but rather to be open to their stories – and if it alters our default perspective just slightly, then we are a step closer to breaking down the walls that separate us.
The conversation about intersectionality also requires a long hard look at privilege. Privilege, in the context of oppression, is a difficult thing for people to talk about, when they have it. People tend not to appreciate being told that they have privilege: they see it as an accusation of being complicit in the oppression being exerted by a powerful, majority group over a less powerful, minority group – an understandable response; most people don’t want to feel that way. But the point about privilege is that almost all of us have some of it, and some of us have a lot of it, and if we acknowledge that then we can be part of the conversation about it. Privilege comes in many forms: sex, race, sexual orientation, wealth, health, class and so on. Even while fighting against our own oppression, the chances are that we are benefiting elsewhere from a different system of privilege that requires us to listen to the experience of others and fight alongside them.
Research from IPPR in 2013 found that while gender has a strong impact on women’s earning prospects, it is nonetheless the case that class, education and occupational backgrounds are stronger determinants of a woman’s progression and potential earnings. The Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede Trust in 2016 highlighted that the intersectionality of poverty, ethnicity and gender magnify the impact of austerity on BAME women. Individuals in the poorest households lose most from tax and benefit changes, but in every income group BAME women lose the greatest proportion of their individual income. In our diverse and complex capital city, some privileges and their corresponding systems of oppression are magnified – in London the rich-poor divide is the starkest in UK, and the gap between women’s and men’s economic activity is widest.
In London the rich-poor divide is the starkest in UK, and the gap between women’s and men’s economic activity is widest.
The UK government is busy preparing legislation mandating large employers to publish their gender pay gap, in order to force public transparency on progress towards gender equality. Reporting on the ethnicity pay gap remains aspirational. The UK gender pay gap currently stands at 18.1 per cent, but the gaps widen and contract for women in different ethnic minority groups, when compared with men in the same ethnic groups and with white British men. In the case of the latter, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women experience the largest gender pay gap at 26.2 per cent; in London, these groups also experience the widest gap in economic activity. We risk excluding entire communities of women from our efforts to narrow the gender gap if we do not understand the stories behind the numbers. If London does not take an intersectional approach to policymaking, we will forever continue to ignore the needs of many different groups.
Same But Different is an ongoing digital project, which can be viewed at samedifferent.org.uk. The exhibition spent International Women’s Day at London City Hall, and will now travel to different venues across the UK.