Sex discrimination and gender at work – a discussion with leading barrister Marina Wheeler

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Jean-Jaques Restaurant, London. November 25th, 2015

Marina Wheeler led a very lively discussion, so lively that the waiters started clearing up around us as the restaurant was closing! Marina admitted to having a resurgence in feminist beliefs, driven by a sudden realisation of how slow progress has been over the last 30 years.

Marina was a wonderful speaker, and left us with 10, and more, things to think about from her excellent talk:

  1. Women are not being kept out anymore but it’s not all sweetness and light. Only one in five High Court judges are women; and there are fewer women leading FTSE firms than men called John.
  2. Society’s main preoccupation seems to be how attractive a woman is – and this falls within a narrow definition. eg Hilary Mantel, Mary Beard, Cherie Blair, and Samantha Cameron’s lack of pedicure
  3. If appearance is the main currency, it objectifies women and ensures that they will only flourish for a short-lived period of time.
  4. Women are guilty of objectifying men (albeit to a lesser extent). Just look at the reaction to the new Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau…
  5. Charlotte Proudman and LinkedIn-gate…one woman’s charm is another woman’s flirting – the two are very open to personal interpretation. Excessive focus on women’s appearance limits our freedom and it should be addressed – but what is a constructive way and forum in which to respond? Is failure to shout out colluding and condoning sexism?
  6. The media is inconsistent in its portrayal of sexism and related issues. A month before the Charlotte Proudman case, the Telegraph published Britain’s 25 sexist solicitors.
  7. Women’s choices aren’t as free as we think they are: we face a spectrum of overt discrimination, internal barriers and practical considerations such as the cost of childcare.
  8. Why do we hold ourselves back? Assertive females may be respected but they’re not liked. Women are brought up to put others first. The Heidi/Howard test shows that success and likeability, concludes Sheryl Sandberg, are positively correlated for men and negatively for women.
  9. “Kids are the killer to progression.” Sometimes older women are unsympathetic because they want to validate their own choices.
  10. Gender stereotypes are still going strong. Women end up doing the lion’s share of the housework. Women need to lean in at work; men must lean in at home. Men and women’s happiness benefits from greater flexibility of roles and a breaking down of stereotypes.

Further reading:

  • Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, by Natasha Walter
  • Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers, by Lois Frankel

And finally some words of wisdom from Marina’s husband: “Mess it up and move on.”

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