I’m not going to pretend I know the reason why women’s salaries are lower than men’s but over the 25 years during which I coached both men and women, and was a woman running a business, I did become aware of some of the trends that would have led to these outcomes still being commonplace. The headlines commenting on the BBC salaries and the apparent inequality of income between its male and female presenters has led me to think again about gender roles, prejudice, unconscious bias and value. It has made me reflect on my own life and the experiences of women my age and younger. It has reminded me what a tricky journey it can be to rise to the top as a woman, when working within what has been a history of a male-dominated environment. So I am going to share a few of those thoughts and as always will be interested in your comments.
Cultural gender legacy
Firstly, it has made me remember the social culture in which I and other older women have grown up. This is not intended in any way as a whinge as I am not one to believe in that. It is intended to help us remember some facts about the environment in which girls grow up.
When I grew up in the 1950s the boys were often treated as if they knew best, even if they didn’t, and this is still the case in some families and cultures. Parents were more lenient with boys in terms of domestic duties. As girls when we went to parties we had to risk being wallflowers, waiting for a boy to ask us to dance. If girls got pregnant they would be shamed while the boys could go off with their honour somehow intact. It gave girls the message that men had more power and can still do so.
At dinner parties in the 60s and 70s men would quite often talk over us, as if we had nothing to say because, after all, they were so important in their working lives that they couldn’t imagine that we had insights they might never have. I grew up with teachers who assumed that I would be a nurse or secretary rather than doctor or boss. In the 60s, when I started work, men were in charge and often asked you to make the tea or coffee for your seniors, whatever your qualifications. It was the rare determined girl who would see herself beyond this, rather than muddling through and then making it to the top despite the put-downs and stereotypes.
As a married women I would receive cold calls to the home where a sales rep would immediately ask to speak to my husband, or say “is Mr Whitten there?” rather than consider that I could be intelligent or responsible enough to make a decision about a purchase myself.
Even in my generation of Baby Boomers I knew some husbands who did not want their wives to work – perhaps because their attention might be called elsewhere than from on them but also due to a potential sense of loss of pride. After all, if their wives were working it might suggest that they themselves were not earning enough to keep their family. That same kind of husband might also spend more money on sending their son to a good private school and not their daughter. Certainly women frequently felt guilty and exhausted by trying to juggle work and family.
It was less than 100 years ago that women got the vote on the same terms as men. It was only in the early 60s that women were able to take control of their bodies and lives through contraception. Throughout history and into the 21st century, wife-beating and domestic violence occurred frequently. These are facts and should not be forgotten. It leads many women to experience being undervalued as a norm in society and especially in the workplace.
All this created the backdrop to the environment in which women of my age grew up. Inevitably this shaped our sense of self identity and esteem. Unfortunately it probably also had an impact on our daughters – we hoped to provide them with a world where there was real equality between the genders but sadly, as the BBC revelations show, things have not changed as much as we had hoped.
I don’t suggest that women should think of themselves as victims. I don’t believe that an identity of victimhood does anyone any good. It certainly doesn’t empower them to make changes.