Insights from Equate’s Director – May 2022

Behave as though your Gran is watching…

I’ve been struck by the number of people I have talked to recently who have been reflecting on the Covid lockdowns and reprioritising what is important in their lives. The simple pleasures of friends, family, and a more balanced way of living and working have soared up the priority list for so many.

At the same time, wider societal challenges and financial pressures are also focusing hearts and minds. But what does all this evaluation mean for our work to build a fairer society, and more inclusive work environments – will it change our attitude about what we are prepared to tolerate or not?

Sometimes it’s hard not to be worn down by the daily grind. The depressing news cycle of the war in Ukraine, cynicism towards public life and political standards (or lack thereof), rising inflation and its ever-increasing financial burdens. Post-Covid is there a rising sense of fatigue, or is society just choosing which battles to fight? Is there a danger that by not speaking out when we should, that we are becoming disconnected and reacting less in terms of speaking up for what is right, true, and decent?

This week we have been running our annual ConStructEd onsite event in West Lothian. 30 women students from 11 different universities and colleges signed up to join us for 3 days of experiential learning. Yet while the course can teach them skills about the practicalities of how to build a wind turbine and navigate the processes of how construction sites operate, I am confronted by the difficulties of how best can we teach women about how to break the “boys club culture” in the workplace.

I was speaking to a friend a few months ago whose daughter was about to start work with a well-known construction company who appeared to have all the right credentials when it came to welcoming a diverse workforce into their midst. She was overjoyed to get what she thought was her dream job. Several months on, she is now considering leaving. The reason – the sheer outright everyday sexism has worn her down. It’s changed her as a person, and shut down her enthusiasm and her confidence.

Sadly the ‘boys club culture’ persists even in organisations that think they have taken all the necessary steps to change it. Send managers on a course. Tick. Put a diversity statement on our website. Tick. Place a picture of a women and someone of ethnic origin on our website. Tick.

The recent Engender report calls for harassment and sexism to be treated like a health and safety issue – and so it should because the impact it has can be mentally and physically devastating.

Health and safety in the workplace is non-negotiable, yet what is still far too acceptable is the inappropriate behaviour and language that women and other minority groups endure while simply trying to get on an even footing with their colleagues. Social nights, where women are not invited – or events or venues that are not inclusive. Meetings where women are cut off mid-sentence and the chair does not address it. Low-level microaggressions about their clothes, hair, shape. The allocation of work and tasks – the assumption that women will be making the tea or take the minutes. Hurtful.  Demeaning. Unacceptable.

So, as we reset our family life priorities can we also find space to reflect on our work-life impact on others? As a suggestion, don’t sit by and watch what you know is poor behaviour. Going along with things in the moment when colleagues make comments that make for a laugh for some, and a humiliation for others. If we all challenged discrimination in the workplace whenever we saw it, we could go much further to building truly inclusive workplaces. We are running a free, online training session on Challenging Discrimination in the Workplace on June 16 (find out more and register here)

There is an advertising campaign on television and radio aimed at young boys whose message is “Drive like your grans in the car.” If we were to follow that sentiment and we were all to image gran is sitting beside us at work, what would she say given some of the things you might hear and see done to women and other minority group colleagues in the workplace? And, crucially, what would she expect you to do about it?