The Daily Telegraph
The push for equality is too often just a smokescreen
Truss has cut the word ‘women’ from the equalities minister’s title and many fear the role is still just an afterthought, as it is in business
Liz Truss dropping the word “women” from her equalities brief while making ministerial appointments last week wasn’t the smartest PR move. Nadhim Zahawi being made the new minister for equalities alone unsurprisingly angered those who viewed the rephrasing as symbolic. Truss herself had held the title of minister for women and equalities, as it was previously.
While Truss notably pulled together a diverse Cabinet, and No10 insisted that the equalities job hasn’t changed in practice, the removal sends a signal that women have been erased. Anneliese Dodds, the shadow women and equalities secretary, tweeted that scrapping the word confirmed that women were “always an afterthought for the Tories” (a point which ignores the fact that the party has now had three female prime ministers).
When Boris Johnson put together his first Cabinet in July 2019, Amber Rudd noticed the women and equalities job had been left to one side. After asking Johnson about it, he replied that it was hers and he had forgotten. She later wrote about the exchange in this newspaper, concluding that the incident was “indicative of the position of that role within government. It is an afterthought, mostly forgotten and then clumsily attached to a woman in the Cabinet”.
Across the country, bosses struggle to balance sending out the right message and having the capacity to actually act. Most have cottoned on to the fact that throwing an extra diversity brief at a very busy, senior person doesn’t do very much in reality – but all too often this still happens. Box-ticking surveys, diversity roundtables and events or extra jobs with the word “women” chucked in tend to just be a smokescreen. What really goes on at work isn’t what you read about on a flyer at a careers fair but in the subtle messages you get each day from those in charge.
There have been major changes in recent years that have created a working environment that our parents would never have dreamt of – be it six-month parental leave or working wherever you want. But many people who work in competitive or well-paid industries feel unable to take up such perks because the stakes are too high.
In the past few months I’ve had conversations with men in cut-throat sectors who admit that they feel uncomfortable accepting their employer’s generous paternity leave packages for fear it will do too much damage to their careers. Some have even been told outright by their managers, unofficially and in hushed tones, that doing so would be a bad idea. The impressive sounding policies are there, announced loudly in corporate marketing material, but attitudes have barely budged. Family is still seen as the woman’s job, and business remains a man’s world.
This stubborn dynamic is highlighted in the shocking new book by former banker Jamie Fiore Higgins, who has just released a memoir about her near-two decades at Goldman Sachs. She recalls being “mooed” at by male colleagues on the way to the bank’s lactation rooms (someone also left a toy cow on her desk), being grabbed around the neck during a violent exchange in a meeting, passing out after being forced to come into work against doctor’s advice following a miscarriage, and witnessing colleagues create a “f***ability” ranking of female staff on an Excel spreadsheet. She made it to the upper echelons of the bank – as a managing director, she was only one level below the highest rank of partner – but the prevailing attitude within the building meant she never felt as though she could use her voice. She always considered speaking up to be far too risky. At one point, she considered taking legal action against the bank but a lawyer advised her that it wouldn’t be worth it. Best to chase the next few bonuses, put up with it, and get out. It’s what thousands do every day.
Higgins’s experiences reflect the extreme end of sexism and bullying in business. Goldman has said it disagrees with her characterisation of the bank’s culture and the anonymous allegations, adding that it has a “zero tolerance policy for discrimination” and all claims are thoroughly investigated with discretion and sensitivity.
The banking sector has gone to great pains to reform its image in recent years and many staff now enjoy very generous perks. However, that doesn’t mean that everything is fine. Higgins has received nearly 200 letters and emails from people reporting similar incidents at their own workplace. The sheer volume shows just how entrenched some of corporate America’s problems really are. Behind all the well-meaning policies and corporate messaging it is clear that inequality still abounds. Women still feel discriminated against and overlooked while men still feel pressure not to take time off.
With the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis forecast to hit women the hardest, smokescreen initiatives won’t cut it. People are disappointed that Truss has removed the word “women” from the equalities role not because they are pedantic, but because they fear that opportunities for real change are disappearing.
Men are not comfortable accepting employer’s paternity leave packages