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Sexism is Bad for your Business

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There’s been a bit of a storm in the blogosphere teacup in the last couple of days, after James Chartrand, a well-known blogger and copywriter, turned out to be an as-yet unnamed woman. “James” decided to come clean on Copyblogger after her cover was blown by a disaffected acquaintance, and explained that she had come to adopt her male pseudonym after finding that it was more profitable to do business as a man than as a woman. Cue reaction from various corners of the internet, running the gamut from congratulatory to outraged.

I admit that I’m only aware of having read content by “James” when it has appeared on Copyblogger, and even then I don’t really pay attention to the various authors, as I’m more interested in what they have to say. Female authors throughout history have adopted male noms de plume or played down their femininity to get their work published, so it’s not as if this is a new phenomenon. What is disturbing, if what “James” described is typical across industries, is that many businesses still seem to have a problem with women.

Just as the election of Barack Obama was supposedly a sign of the USA being a “post-racial” society, so the presence of Carly Fiorina at Hewlett Packard and Meg Whitman at eBay was taken as a sign that business was now “post-feminist” and that sexism was dead (interestingly, both women were forced out of their positions: Fiorina in 2005, and Whitman in 2008). But despite the occasional high-profile woman, the fact remains that at the highest levels of business, women remain enough of a rarity to be remarked upon.

Various half-hearted explanations have been put forward for the status quo, though none seems to hold water when examined closely. Women have babies and don’t care enough their careers is the most common one; women aren’t aggressive enough to compete for salary increases or promotions; women don’t have the “right mindset” to make it to the boardroom; or, women just don’t have the talent and smarts to cut it at the top table. All of these have been used as justifications for not recruiting women, or to keep them at lower levels of responsibility when they are hired. I rarely swear  on this blog, but I’m going to let this one stand: I call bullshit.

The reason women don’t make it to the top is simple: people generally hire those similar to themselves. Familiarity is comforting, and as the top levels of business have tended to be male, there has been a self-perpetuating cycle of men promoting other men and ignoring those who don’t fit the mould of what they see as “one of their own.” Compound this with the fact that the majority of these jobs will not be advertised, and will instead be filled through informal networking and “sounding out” interested parties, and it’s easy to see how women find themselves excluded.

This, however, is not the fault of women. Rather, it hints at a short-sightedness amongst the men in charge, for overlooking the talents and strengths of their female colleagues in favour of pushing more of the same. And it is sexism, to assume that every woman in the workplace will want to have children or isn’t interested in progressing beyond a certain point in her career. It is sexism to assume that women (all women!) cannot do as good a job as a man simply because they have ovaries. There were shade of this when Norway introduced a quota stating that 40% of the board in companies over a certain size were to be female. There were howls of outrage at the prospect of men losing jobs; industrialists insisted that there simply wasn’t enough female talent to make the measure workable. Dire predictions were made about the future of the Norwegian economy. Since then? Strangely, Norway seems to be doing just fine, with nary a peep to be heard from the men who suddenly had a surfeit of leisure time.

The propensity to stick with what you know, especially in gender and employment means that half the potential talent pool for any position risks being ignored. This cannot carry on. In the USA and the UK, there have been more female university graduates than male for a number of years now, and the trend does not show any signs of reversing. If businesses cannot overcome their inherent sexism, they will end up missing out on the best and brightest recruits. And these women do not just disappear. They will end up working for the competition, networking amongst themselves, starting their own businesses. Better employees lead to higher profits; while it might be comfortable to keep a business a “boys’ club,” in the long term this could hurt the bottom line.

This isn’t to say that a business should recruit women for the sake of it. Obviously the best person for the job should be employed, regardless of their gender. But it is important to monitor recruitment processes, so that they are as gender-neutral as possible, and also to rethink the way a business operates. Currently, aside from freelancing, there are not enough opportunities for flexible or part-time working; the Anglo-Saxon mode of working is overwhelmingly skewed towards presenteeism rather than getting things done. This would also help in retaining workers, whether male or female: an employee is far more likely to stick with a company that allows them a degree of leeway to manage their life than one where their co-workers are more closer to them than their family.

Unlike some, I’m not surprised that a woman felt forced to adopt a persona to get ahead. Nor was it a shock that sexism still persists, despite all right-thinking people paying lip service to gender equality. What was most shocking were those bloggers and commentators who were desperate to believe it was anything other than sexism that was at play, despite there being no credible alternative explanation. I can’t be angry at “James” for doing what many other women have done, and may still be doing. But I can rail against the status quo, and do my best to ensure that I, for one, do nothing more to perpetuate it.

[Image by Rrho]

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