It’s Wimbledon: Strawberries & Cream & Equality for Women Players

Strawberries & Cream
Six years ago, Wimbledon, as the last of the Grand Slam tournaments, granted equal pay to women players. A little late, perhaps, but with that decision Wimbledon finally entered the 21st Century where men and women are equal.

And yet, there are still some commentators who question the rightness of that decision. They ignore the fact that prize money covers a player’s expenses. Women pay the same for their coaches and support network, they train just as hard and the materials are just as expensive, hotels are not cheaper for the female sex…

Instead, they highlight the fact that women only play the best of three sets, versus five sets for the men. Women work less hard for the money, and should therefore earn less. Women players do not choose to play fewer sets. A lot of players have publicly spoken out that they are ready to play five sets. I am not an expert on women’s physiology, but I doubt that women would fatally injure themselves or jeopardise their health if they were to play five sets. It has been done before, and they all survived!

The implication however is clear: women are frail, weaker, physically not the equal of men, not as impressive as athletes and should be protected. A very Victorian concept, yet one that stubbornly survives in society. How often do we question the fact that women have access to fewer physical opportunities than men? As an example, Jessica Ennis had to compete in the heptathlon during the Olympics, with men competing in the decathlon.

These imposed sporting limitations affect our perception of women in society. Yes, we are equal in principle, sure, but women should not be doing heavy physical work. They probably should not be working on a construction site with a hard hat and boots, or be employed on a rig, on a submarine… We are not strong enough, we need protection, we are frail, and besides, dare we mention it, hard physical work is not very feminine.

Wimbledon remains committed to its Victorian ideals by repeatedly speaking out against “grunting” in women’s tennis. There has even been talk of forbidding it altogether by using “gruntometers” to measure women players’ noise levels. The official line is that it distracts the opponent. In an article in the Telegraph a few days ago, Pippa Middleton, that symbol of women’s equality, said that she prefers men’s tennis at Wimbledon because she finds the grunting too distracting and annoying. Shockingly, men grunt too. Jimmy Connors was the first player to grunt, and has been credited with inventing it. Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and others are all noisy players. But we never complain about them. Instead, we focus on women’s grunting. Do we find it distracting because it is not ladylike, not feminine?

Maybe mixed doubles could be the green shoot of equality at Wimbledon. Move the mixed doubles to Centre court, let each play to her or his strengths, complementing a teammate’s abilities. Not a bad model for the workplace, either, come to think of it.

Does sex matter?

Let’s start with an excursion in phrenology…

Phrenology was a (pseudo)science popular in the 19th century. Developed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall, the central theme of the theory states that the different bumps on a person’s skull determines their personality. Gall developed his theory after examining thieves in prison and discovering that most of them had lumps above their ears. He claimed that a person’s moral and intellectual abilities were innate and could be determined by examining their skull. The theory led to widespread stereotyping and even formed the basis for some Nazi theories of race superiority.

With some exceptions, phrenology was widely discredited by the beginning of the 20th Century. New discoveries in science led to an increased understanding of the brain versus the shape of the skull. Research in neuroscience has also proven that intelligence is not just innate, but the brain continues to evolve throughout life.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we have an increasing body of research focusing on the innate differences between men and women. We regularly read articles in the press highlighting the scientific evidence for differences in personality traits between men and women, differences in how they view the world, process information etc. Our educators are told to understand the differences between girls and boys, so that they can focus their teaching appropriately on both genders.

I am not a scientist, and will not argue against the accuracy of all this research (although I would like to point out that many renowned scientists disagree). I do however wonder how helpful the research is to the advancement of women’s opportunities. If men and women believe that their differences in personality and learning are innate, we offer both genders an excuse to stick to the status quo. In an article I recently read, one researcher who claims that men and women are inherently different pointed out that government initiatives to attract more women into science and engineering might be pointless, as girls tend to choose careers and education that fits their personality.  In other words, girls don’t have the personality for engineering? That sounds remarkably similar to the argument that boys with lumps above their ears will be thieves.

Whether the differences between men and women are innate, driven by differences in their brain function or driven by society and culture is irrelevant in how we deal with gender equality in the 21st century. Regardless of the underlying reasons, men and women are treated differently today, and behave differently. We hear plenty of anecdotal evidence from women who were pushed into arts subjects, even though they were interested in science. We read about women who drop their science subjects at university fearing they are not good enough, even though they have better grades than their male peers. We talk to lots of female engineers who are unsure about their career and future, and don’t feel at ease in the culture of their company. Sharing from my own experiences, I will never forget a tutorial I had during my master’s degree where I was singled out for not having read the materials on the reading list. One of my fellow students only half-jokingly pointed out: “it doesn’t matter my dear, in the end you’ll make a good housewife!”

Men and women alike, we are all stereotyping every day, and it is not helpful. We talk about the need to accommodate job sharing and part time working, to attract more women who want a better work-life balance, assuming men are not nurturing, and do not want to spend time with their family. There are lots of well-meant political initiatives that reinforce stereotypical thinking about women, and do nothing to advance equality in the workplace. In the Netherlands, the desire for part time working and increased family time is shared by both genders, and many men and women work four days per week, allowing each parent to spend a day with their children. Consequently, both men and women will combine their career with their important family life, and employers cannot willingly or unwillingly treat women less favourably on the assumption that they will need more time off. It is assumed that the desire to nurture one’s family life is gender-neutral. When developing plans to attract and retain more women in areas where they are traditionally underrepresented, like science and engineering, the best starting point is to forget everything we know about the genders, and ignore all assumptions in our head about behaviour and attitude. When recognising that people value family time and might prefer to pursue careers where a life-work balance is a real option, let’s focus on all individuals who value increased time off, rather than singling out women as a “target group”. When talking about changing company cultures to attract more women, let’s focus on a company culture that welcomes a more diverse group of people instead, men and women alike.

Above all, let’s always acknowledge that everyone is different. If we really want to help women feel more comfortable in their environment and advance in their chosen field, let’s start with their real personality rather than their assumed traits.


Women Engineering Recruiters: So What?

My business partner and I set up Sagent because we are passionate about the art of recruitment. We believe that technical recruitment has become a process driven industry, where truly understanding the needs of candidates and hiring doesn’t matter anymore. We didn’t realise that we had another selling point until clients started pointing it out. “You are a women owned engineering recruitment business”, a stakeholder at a large company told us, “that is great, we really want to diversify our supply chain.”
Really? That was our selling point?

We weren’t so sure how to feel about this. Being raised in a feminist household and having always believed in the power of hard work and my skills as a good sales person, I didn’t want to win business because I am a woman. More importantly, most of our staff, candidates and clients are men, I can’t tell them that this is our selling point!
But we were wrong. Being an engineering recruitment company owned by two women does matter. Our perspective on recruitment is female; some of the values we bring to our business are typical female values. That doesn’t mean they don’t appeal to men. Our consultants joined us because they like our values. Our candidates like dealing with us because we want to understand their career motivations and drivers alongside their technical expertise. Many men value this just as much as women.

Diversifying the recruitment supply chain matters to our customers. Most engineering companies are sincere in their efforts to attract more women engineers. Not just because it looks good on the CSR agenda, but out of sheer necessity. In a market driven by candidate shortage, our clients understand that they need to appeal to everyone, and that excluding skilled candidates will limit their ability to innovate and grow.

For a long time, the drivers in our sector have been around process improvement and efficiency, automation of sourcing to increase response rates etc. Candidates experience a slick, automated recruitment process with little personal interaction with the agency or corporate recruiter. At Sagent, we passionately believe that we will be better able to serve all engineering candidates – male and female – through a more personal approach, were conversations matter and are a real part of the pre interview assessment. Women might be less active job seekers, might welcome more coaching throughout the process, might benefit from a different interview style with the hiring manager etc. We don’t believe in positive discrimination. We will not favour female applicants over male applicants. We do however believe that our recruitment process will give female engineers a better chance to get the job they deserve. And that is why diversifying the supply chain in recruitment matters for engineering companies!