'Fixing' women or gender inequality?

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18 / 3 / 2016 2.54pm

In support of this month's celebrating diversity theme - a number of female and male representatives, from public and private sector, are blogging about International Women's Day. Dr Anna Einarsdottir, senior lecturer at the University of York, is the fifth blogger in the series. In her blog, she discusses the importance of tackling structural inequalities. 

'Fixing' women or gender inequality?

Author: Dr Anna Einarsdottir

International Women’s Day is an uncomfortable, yet necessary reminder of the persistent gender inequalities that affect women globally, nationally, regionally and closer to home, shaping our lives in profound ways. 

To mark the day, NHS Employers has been ‘encouraging men and women to take concrete steps to help achieve gender parity’. This needs to be celebrated for two reasons. First, for acknowledging that there is a problem (and believe me this acknowledgement is not a given), and second, for suggesting collective responsibility of men and women to take action. That said, the wording caught my attention - gender parity. Are we no-longer addressing gender inequality, but correcting imbalances? Does this make inequalities less confrontational, or perhaps less serious? Of further concern is how inequalities are increasingly individualised, leaving structural and cultural barriers in tact. One clear example of this is the recent push for mentoring women. 

While it is certainly not my intention to undermine the importance of mentoring, and I can wholeheartedly say that my personal experience of mentoring has been positive, mentoring indirectly suggests that we, as women, need to work on ourselves (e.g. to get more confident, assertive, opportunistic), or worse, fix ourselves to get to the top. 

Recent figures from the NHS show that women are grossly underrepresented among governing body members (37 per cent) and among lead General Practitioners (26 per cent). In mentoring terms, this means a lot of 'women fixing', as opposed to putting concrete measures in place to correct the male top-heavy environment that we currently live with in the NHS. 

A more sensible approach would be to tackle structural inequalities. The Equality Act offers provisions to address under-representation of protected characteristics (including gender) at recruitment stage, through positive action. What may stop organisations from using this provision is the general misunderstanding that positive action involves favouring one group of people over another where this is no disadvantage or under-representation in the workplace. But the truth is, evidence of disadvantage or under-representation of a particular group has to be in place. 

As the figures above suggest, this has already been established within the NHS, but applying positive action is at employer’s discretion. I am under no illusion that positive action is possibly not the only solution, but certainly a good starting point for the NHS. No such provisions, however, are available in respects to promotions, which leaves the door to sustained inequalities wide open. 

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