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Beyond the boardroom – The long walk to equality

With the 2017 voting season beginning to come to an end, we at Hermes EOS have made a conscious effort this year to encourage gender diversity in the boardrooms of listed companies.

We have, for example, opposed the election of the chairs of the nominations committees – often the chairs of the company itself – in the UK of FTSE 100 companies with fewer than 25% women on the board and where we are not satisfied with the plans to increase this figure to the new goal of 33% by 2020. At FTSE 250 and US companies that lack any female board directors, we have recommended voting against the election of the nominations or governance committee chair.

Increasing the number of women on boards is very much a top down approach. It is practical and straightforward enough for boards to enact and for shareholders to encourage. More diverse boards, we believe, are likely to make better decisions. At the same time, this also sends an important signal to women and men inside and outside the organisation that the company is trying to tackle inequality.

However, the long walk to equality needs to start much earlier. It needs to start on day one.

Early days
When trying to find a card for someone’s newborn baby you are largely faced with two choices – pink or blue. Moving onto clothes and toys it is even more difficult as neutral colours seem to have disappeared and been replaced with gender-defining hues of pink and blue. Even Lego bricks have reached a shocking shade of pink. Trying to make gender neutral purchases has become increasingly difficult.

Of course, there are plenty of girls out there that love all things pink, but with several billion women on the planet one could assume that they would have developed different tastes.

As a doll-loathing, football-mad and plain Lego loving tomboy who refused to wear skirts or anything pink or red from a young age, I am more than just irritated.

Growing up
It was only recently that my mum told me about her concerns about me often being the only girl at boys’ birthday parties in my kindergarten and primary school days. I don’t know whether this is credit to my parents or the naivety of a child but at that age I did not think there was anything unusual about this. Apart from not taking kindly to always ending up near last in the track and field events at these parties because I had to compete against my sporty male mates or – even more humiliating – against their much older sisters.

But we are exposed to the creation and reinforcement of gender stereotypes at all stages of life.

Girls enjoying or venturing into areas deemed as predominantly male, such as science or engineering, for example, may not be given the right support from teachers or parents with preconceived ideas. And if they are to succeed, the onus is on them to develop thick skin and outshine their male peers at all times.

Once in my linguistics class, we looked at the language used by UK newspapers. Until that point I had been happily unaware of the gender clichés we are continuously confronted with, such as ‘mum-of-four’ (tabloids) and ‘mother-of-three’ (broadsheets), which seem more important than any other personal information1. Look closely and you will find them too.

Nowadays, every time I am faced with magazines at the hairdresser, I feel like an alien. The magazine publishers seem to think that all that women are interested in is domesticity, weddings and babies, not even those of friends and family, but those of Z-list celebrities.

And even when women manage to reach the lofty heights of politics – think Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and Theresa May – they are not immune to gender-stereotyping. All three of these seem to have generated almost as many column inches for their shoes, suits and decisions to have children or not than their political beliefs.

At the same time, the recent rhetoric that has emerged in the populist politics of various countries often resorts to stereotyping women.

Working life
To this day, gender equality – or dare I say feminism – seems to lack the appeal to be taken seriously. In fact, if you are still with me at this point, you have done well.

We cannot ignore that, despite the slow increase in women on boards and in the most senior management roles, much still needs to be done. Even in countries with equal pay legislation, for example, a pay gap continues to exist between men and women for doing the same or similar work.

Different attitudes also persist over parenthood. The mere mention of paternity leave lead to chuckles in some corners. Meanwhile, women who take little maternity leave can come under fire for neglecting their children, while those who do the opposite face accusations of losing interest in their career. You see, for some it is just too difficult to get their head around ambition in women. Men and women alike seem to want to point out that something is not as it should be by labelling career women as aggressive or one of the boys.

And sadly, many of us have heard of a woman who, once she has succeeded in what she wants to achieve, pulls the ladder up behind her or tries to create an uncomfortable working environment for other women with the sole aim of pushing them out.

Just think of the attacks – mainly accusations of privilege – that came in thick and fast for Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg when she published Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Having read, what I believe is a great piece of guidance for women and men, these attacks are unjustified to say the least.

The fact is that women are all different, and it is this diversity that society should acknowledge and encourage. Women ought to be able to make the choices in life that suit them, while men need to realise that they do not need to fear giving women the same chances in life.

Hermes EOS has broadened its engagement work to encourage companies to address the issues of bias against women in the working environment. We are fully aware that this can be challenging, and we commend companies that are serious about it. The reporting by some US technology companies of having no or minimal gender pay gaps is one encouraging move we have seen to date, as is the target set by mining company BHP Billiton for women to make up half of its workforce by 2025. While one measure does not mean that women do not face other issues at those companies, it shows that progress can be made.

However, it is equally important to acknowledge that the power to push for change also lies within every single one of us. Raising awareness of the bias that exists in everyday life and attempting to redress this is part of that.

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