Ask the Audience: Discrimination in the Workplace

Welcome back to another instalment of ‘Ask the Audience’! Today we are going to be talking about the age old issue of sexism in the workplace.

For those who don’t know, I am an employment lawyer. I see countless cases brought by women who have been discriminated against at work. The law offers strong protections for discrimination as a result of sex, pregnancy and maternity but quite often the problems require prevention rather than cure. The issue lies in ingrained attitudes about the worth of a working mother, the role of a woman in the workplace and in general, how differently a woman can be treated before she cracks. 

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However, when talking about working mothers we also need to think about working fathers. Men are much less likely to be offered flexible working arrangements in terms of childcare and currently only receive 2 weeks of statutory paternity leave in the UK. It is important to remember that sexism in the workplace runs in both directions and is exacerbated by perceived gender roles.

Last year, you may have heard about the scandal that took place when barrister, Charlotte Proudman, publicly shamed Alexander Carter-Silk (a senior partner at Brown Rudnick) for an inappropriate approach on professional networking site, LinkedIn. Unfortunately the focus of the scandal was more on the fact that she had named and shamed, rather than his pervy message. I would argue that Charlotte Proudman risked her professional reputation in order to use the only tactic she knew would get a response. Without revealing Carter-Silk, the message would not have elicited the same reaction. I know I have received creepy messages on LinkedIn in the past, so hopefully this will encourage more men to remember that they are not on a dating website.

Newsflash derfwad – if you think it’s politically incorrect maybe keep your mouth shut?

In the same vein, a recent article included comments from a QC suggesting that Amal Clooney was only successful in her legal career because of her husband, George. Edward Faulks seemed to have forgotten the fact that (amongst other achievements) Amal was not only the senior advisor to Kofi Anan, but also represented Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and was the legal advisor to the King of Bahrain, all before she became Mrs Clooney. Despite all of this, she still has to deal with people asking her about her outfit when she turns up to court to deal with matters relating to the Armenian Genocide.

Unfazed: Human rights barrister Amal Clooney, who appeared at the European Court of Human Rights with her boss Geoffrey Robertson QC, replied to 'fashion speculation' by saying: 'I'm wearing Ede & Ravenscroft'

Slaying dat Ede & Ravenscroft doe

And then we have the issue of the wage gap. Despite David Cameron’s noble claim that he would end unequal pay between men and women in a generation, as of November 2015, the equal pay gap was 14.2%. The wage gap between those in top positions is a shocking 59.4%. Why are women still being shortchanged for undertaking equal work?

There are dozens more examples I could give (such as Jennifer Lawrence’s article about sexism in Hollywood) so let’s move on to the opinions of our fantastic focus group. In this week’s instalment of ‘Ask the Audience’, we asked a group of women whether they had ever experienced discrimination based on their sex at work or at university. Here’s what they had to say –

Georgina, 30, Solicitor, London

I used to work for a company that had ingrained sexism at the top. As a woman I was expected to take over secretarial and domestic duties when it wasn’t my role – this included fetching coffees and buying lunches for board meetings when we had young men on work experience who would have been better placed for this. They appointed a female board member and once referred to her as the token female member (1 of 9) who just hadn’t delivered so had “let her sex down”. Needless to say, I couldn’t work there for long. They would have sworn blind there was no sexism.

Interestingly, the male employee who was deemed ‘effeminate’ and took care in his appearance was relentlessly bullied and cited as a ‘closet gay’ by the head honcho… ‘Femininity’ has had a difficult and trying history which perhaps only time can fix.

Nissmah, 22, Architecture Student, United Arab Emirates 

Regarding sexism in university, I haven’t come across any discrimination as such. The culture here equally respects its women and the choices they make.

“Hannah”, 33, Solicitor, Hertfordshire

I didn’t notice any discrimination whilst at University but I have experienced it in both my current workplace and my previous workplace. As I qualified as a solicitor at a relatively young age (27), I was treated differently to older male solicitors. It was said that I could be my own secretary whereas a male colleague who qualified after me was automatically given a secretary. I had many issues when I tried to return to work after my first child was born in terms of what was expected of me versus male colleagues. I feel that my current workplace is so heavily male dominated that derogatory sexist comments are so common that they’re tolerated by management and HR.

Charlotte, 31, Marketing Manager, Essex

Yes a number of different workplaces particularly when I was in my early 20s. One was an old man who kept whispering things in my ear… it was a horrible experience.

“Shabana” 19, Law Student, Norfolk

Not officially. Gender and race statistics within the legal profession are definitely not in my favour though so I often worry about how types of discrimination may affect my future career.

Meera, 24, Project Co-ordinator in Community Development with a housing association, Banbury

This was a difficult question to answer. Initially, I wanted to say ’no’ but the truth is that there have been occasions – albeit very few – when I’ve wondered whether I was being discriminated against as a result of my sex. The reason for my doubt is that these instances of potential discrimination have rarely been explicit and, seen through another’s eyes, could easily be put down to miscommunication or different comfort levels in the context of social interaction.

For instance, there were a couple of occasions when a particular senior staff member at work made comments that bordered on inappropriate and my response was either to shut them down or laugh them off. The comments didn’t bother me enough to report them and I knew they were not a reflection of this staff member’s view of my professional capability. But does the very fact that I question the propriety of these comments render them inappropriate? Perhaps more worryingly, I wonder whether I would have been taken seriously if I had wanted to report them.

I have witnessed female colleagues face patronising treatment from male colleagues, and have called the latter out for this behaviour. Even so, situations such as this make me examine my behaviour, to ensure that I come across as logical and assertive and not as ‘bossy’ and ‘aggressive’. There shouldn’t be this tension and I’m sure that my male peers do not face this internal debate.

 Hazel, 59, Family Lawyer, Surrey

Yes. When pregnant with [my son] Tom, I was told by employer they would not make me a partner that year (firm of solicitors) but I would be busy with the baby so they had decided to see how I was as a mum before partnership [was] offered.

Nisha, 24, Litigation Executive, London

I have definitely experienced discrimination both personally and professionally. Everything from a small comment about the inferiority of women to blatant sexism without remorse. And what’s even worse is that when you try to defend yourself for being a woman (something no one should ever have to do), you are made to feel like you are just being difficult, like your opinion doesn’t hold as much value.

Blanca, 57, Teacher, Santander (Spain)

Not personally. Sometimes being talked to or treated in a patronizing way. A meeting being changed because there was an important football match…

“F.A.” 23, Medical Student

Infrequently, but sometimes I feel that female and male medical students are given different careers advice by senior role models based on their sex – this is important because these figures are often influential in shaping medical students’ career choices. For example, I have heard of doctors and other healthcare professionals encouraging female students to consider certain specialities based on the fact that they would afford a better work-life balance than others, assuming that most girls would prioritise raising a family over their careers. This mentality dissuades a lot of female medical students from pursuing certain specialities, such as orthopaedic surgery or neurosurgery, which is why there is a paucity of females in these fields.

In my experience, culture can also play a role. A few weeks ago, I visited my optometrist. During the consultation, he had asked me what I did and I told him that I was a medical student interested in neurology as a career, the usual small talk. He came across as a friendly, open-minded professional until he informed me that he thought that my ambition to complete my degree and work full-time in a challenging career, was ‘naïve’, and that because we were both Asian and he was a year older than me, he knew more about the world than me and was sure that in time, I would prioritise getting married and having children over having a fulfilling career. Complete nonsense.

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Have you ever experienced sexism in the workplace or at university? If you would like to share your experiences, leave a comment below!

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Thanks for reading,

~ Sanya

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