Adrian Whitehouse

Technical Partner Director, Isobar UK

As part of our celebrations for International Women's Day 2020, we heard from Adrian Whitehouse, Technical Partner Director at Isobar UK, on what #EachForEqual means to him, why it's vital that everyone gets involved and why there's still a long way to go when it comes to ensuring full diversity and inclusion in the workplace and society.

With any of the events, festivals, or days that are celebrated globally these days it can be easy to become blasé or wonder whether you need to get involved.  I certainly feel, or have felt, that as a middle aged, middle class, married, white, father of two that I’m more likely to be a part of the problem that needs addressing than a part of the solution, or that I’m out of my depth or without something relevant to say.  Why should I get involved? What difference could I make?  What would I actually do?  But I’ve never wanted to miss out on the opportunity to spend some time with some of the inspirational and great leaders that I’ve had the privilege to know and work with in my life (many of whom are women), or learn more about their perspectives and success strategies (some of which are uniquely shaped by being a woman), or understand better the way in which they see the world and the challenges that they believe we all have a responsibility to help overcome (some of which are only faced by women).

Trying to be inclusive when you’re not sure where to start comes with its own challenges.  When I first became aware of International Women’s Day I needed to think hard on the idea of what a ”Women’s Day” meant practically to me because women are almost exactly half of the worlds population and, because we are all beautiful, complex, multifaceted human beings, having an “International Half The Population Day” felt like I had to be missing something. So I tried a bit harder. Do women face different challenges, globally and in the UK, based on their gender, sexuality, ethnic background etc.?  Of course they do.  Do they all have a common challenge in realising equality with men, particularly in business and society?  Of course they do.  So I’ve learned that one of the many great things about International Women’s Day is that we all get to spend some time listening, learning, and engaging in dialogue that helps us to advance our own thinking and understanding, whoever we are.  We are focussing on women first and foremost but by also considering issues of sexuality, gender, race, religion etc. etc. we are thinking not just about how the world is for women but how the world is for women of every different type. So “Each for Equal” means to me that we should all bring who we are to the party, whoever we are, and focus today on the point of view of all women.

But why should we get involved?  Don’t we have enough to do already?  Won’t other people take care of this for us?  Of all the groups we could be thinking about, it would be hardest for us to claim that we non-women don’t have at least one woman who is important in our lives – we each have one woman without whom we would not even exist.  And, whoever we are, women or non-women if we have any power, privilege, platform or voice at all then we owe it to ourselves to use it to advocate for women and (particularly if we’re men) show that we are there as allies and that we won’t stand idly by and tolerate inequality of any kind. 

This is an opportunity to engage within our own communities, and engage with other communities, around something we can all identify with and (almost certainly) learn more about.  And it’s good for us to do so - to reflect on the needs of others and to give service to support others not only feels good, but is proven to be good for there mind.  But what can you actually do?  Go and ask, you’ll find out soon enough.

But this is the 21st century, isn’t it?  Surely the fortunes of women are better today than they have ever been, aren’t they?  Sadly not.

For example, recent research from Dr. Martha  M. Lauzen titled "It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top Grossing Films of 2019" finds that in the top 100 grossing movies of 2019, 40% of protagonists were female, 43% male, and the remaining 17% were ensembles - that doesn't sound too bad, does it?  But if you then consider the percentage of female versus male roles as major characters the figure falls to 37% female major characters and 63% male major characters, and falls slightly further for speaking roles with 66% of speaking roles being male and only 34% being female.  That neither fits the approximately 50/50 male/female ratio globally nor, dare I say it, the received wisdom (that has informed many, many studies) that women talk more than men (which they don't).  Although when we do talk, we do talk differently, studies suggest.

When we look at the studies of the differences that sex and gender can make in the workplace there continue to be some pretty concerning findings.  HBR published last November an article which I shared with a few of my female friends with a note along the lines of “This doesn’t sound like you - what do you think?”  In an article titled “Research: How Women and Men View Competition Differently“ Professor Selin Kesebir of London Business School presented the findings of her research with colleagues into the perceptions of competition by men and women and whether, on their scale, women were more or less competitive than men.  Whilst it didn’t surprise me that the study showed that women tend to be less competitive than men, I couldn’t help feeling cheated.  I’m pleased to say that I know a lot of smart, competitive, high achievers and most of them are women, but it’s clear from the study that there seem to be societal factors which drive people’s perceptions of competition which tend towards making women less likely to view competition positively and men slightly more positively. And my friends all said much the same thing – “I don’t think I’m typical”. I think that’s a shame, particularly if we’re judging men and women differently for wanting to be the best they can be.

Robin J Ely and Irene Padavic’s excellent article in this month’s HBR, titled “What’s really holding women back?” also points to expectations around gender roles which mean that women are being penalised for wanting to be the best.  In their study of the high-pressure environment of global consulting firms, whilst there is apparent equality both of overall opportunity and also in the provision of “accommodations” to parents to give them support as they transition into parenthood, it is clearly women who are either expected to step away from work first and longest whether that is by society, the partners or themselves.  When there is a culture of high pressure and meeting the demand of very long working hours it seems that men and women both expect that women should feel a greater pull towards the family and feel that it is men feel a greater pull to prioritising work.  If the workloads and cultural pressure to work long hours weren’t there, there wouldn’t be a choice for anyone to make in prioritising their work life over their home life.  But if men choose to prioritise work over home life they are admired and respected for it, whereas when women prioritise work over home life their character is questioned and they are held up as “horrible mothers”.  There is no choice in this situation that women can make where they do not suffer the consequences, unlike men, even though the firm seems to have solid diversity and inclusion policies in place.  This is inherently unfair, and comes down to social attitude and policy.

Speaking of which (and I’m not on commission from HBR or trying to max out your monthly free credits here!) a new article published this week by Caitlyn Collins of Washington University in St. Louis documents the experience of “two Sarah’s” who both become mothers for the first time, one in Sweden and one in Seattle.  Having lived and worked in North America for 7 years I am keenly aware of the differences in benefits there when compared to those available in Europe and it’s unsurprising to read that “Swedish Sarah” had much more support, respect and time to enjoy the transition into parenthood.  This is one example of the ”inequality within inequality”, in this case where social policies of different countries set up society and business to view this aspect of life differently. 

So it’s clear that there is still a long way to go.  Much progress has been made, diversity has been proven to be good for business here in North America and western Europe, and the need for women to have equal presence and voice at all levels is critical.  But we’re not there yet, as the data above shows.  We need to "Each (be) for Equal", not just for the good of women, but for the good of everybody. 

We can certainly all benefit from getting involved in International Women's Day in 2020, and every year.  And if I have caused just one person to think and reflect or act as a result of writing these words then we're all winning.  And if I've written something which isn't quite right, or that somebody disagrees with, or that somebody wants to build on, and they get in touch with me and they tell me so, then I'm winning and a difference has been made.

Happy International Women's Day 2020, to everybody!