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Equality and Privilege

by David G Smith
Wednesday 24 February 2016

A little while back I read an article in the Guardian on gender imbalance in the most prominent roles within the biggest UK companies. A little further reading confirmed that this was not limited to the UK - not that I was surprised.

It’s a topic I wanted to explore further for our school assemblies.

Running our Businesses

The FTSE 100 is a list of companies that are traded on the London Stock Exchange - specifically the 100 most valuable companies based on their market capitalisation. Each of these companies is run by a board and an executive team.1

The board determines the long-term strategic direction of the organisation and is headed by a Chairperson - actually typically referred to as the Chairman. I guess that could be considered a hint of what is coming next.

The executive team handles the day to day operations of a company. This team is led by a CEO.

Within an educational context, schools also typically have a Board of Directors (or governors) headed by a chairperson, and their head teacher is the operational equivalent of a CEO.

Counting Davids and Johns

When you are faced with a room of 200+ pupils and staff at each assembly and you ask everyone called “David” to stand up, it is interesting to note just how relatively uncommon the name has become. Three Davids out of 650 pupils. Compare that to how many of our business leaders are called David.

14 Chairs/CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are called David

Repeating the exercise with “John” gets the same result. Three Johns out of 650 pupils.

17 Chairs/CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are called John

So then all females are asked to stand up. And suddenly the Davids and Johns are significantly outnumbered. So the open question is ‘How many women are in these positions of power, running the largest companies in the UK?’

The answer is stark.

7 Chairs/CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are female

For every one of the UK’s most influential business leaders that are female, there are two called David.

It all Comes Down to Money

It’s not just at the top of the corporate ladder that inequality thrives. According to data gathered by the Office for National Statistics, when comparing those in full-time employment, men earn 10% more per hour than women. And that pay gap rises in managerial, professional, and skilled jobs.

In fact, when looked at annually and combining all factors, on average the difference is even more significant.

Average salary for men in full-time employment: ~£30,000 per annum

Average salary for women in full-time employment: ~£25,000 per annum

I am sure it could be argued that some of that comes from long-standing cultural factors that mean that women are more likely to take time out of careers to raise children - and new rules on Shared Parental Leave may well have an impact on that in time - but the fact remains that this pay gap exists across all levels and employment sectors.

Representation of Women

Lady Justice, symbol of equality and fairness

The leaders of corporations undoubtedly have a significant influence on our lives. They determine hiring policies and pay scales, oversee product and advertising strategies, and these leaders act as role models for those that try to follow in their footsteps.

However, there is a more insidious gender imbalance that we are all faced with each and every day. It starts in government. Our elected (I will leave the unelected for another day) officials make decisions which affect our daily lives, our prospects, and our descendants.

At the time of writing, 29% of the Members of the UK Parliament, and 36% of the Members of Scottish Parliament, are female. On the surface this is great news. From the position that faced the suffragettes I guess you could call that progress. But the fact remains…

There are twice as many men running our country as there are women

The imbalance is greater in senior ministerial positions. And in the top jobs, in most countries around the world, women are few and far between.

Masculine Voices in our Heads

The situation gets worse when you look just below the surface. The media representation of women has often been in the spotlight, from gender stereotypes in advertising to gender inequality in the film industry.

But that is only half of the story. The news that is reported is typically researched, written, and presented by men.

On sampling all of the attributed content in a selection of UK daily, national newspapers for a month in 2011, the Guardian discovered that less than 23% of named journalists were women.

Masculine Expertise in our News

More concerning, I would argue, is the role of “experts” in the media. City University London, under the direction of Professor Lis Howell, has been studying the number of female experts who are brought in to provide evidence or information to support a reported story in mainstream broadcast news. The most recent round of research reports an increase in the proportion of women experts, however male experts still outnumber their female equivalents by more than three to one.

Our lawmakers, the journalists that hold our lawmakers to account, as well as the experts these journalists wheel in to provide authority to their reports, they are predominantly male. Even if we assume the best intentions are being pursued by all involved, this is not a good message for our children to see day in day out when they access the most respected and trusted news sources.

Is it any wonder that equality is slow to arrive?

Recognising Privilege

The postscript to this discussion is that gender inequality is just one of the areas in which we, as members of the human race, could improve our record on. Arguably things are getting better, but it’s easy for a professional, degree-educated, heterosexual, middle class, middle-aged, white male to talk about how important equality is when he has never had to face the challenges faced at the sharp end of inequality.

Getting back to those assemblies… I tried to highlight this privilege by playing a quick game I had set up in advance. It requires a sheet of A4 paper per class (or per pupil if you do this in a single class, or want to make a big mess) and a bin or large box.

The setup is crucial. It helps that our group classes are arranged in a predictable manner for each assembly, so I was able to arrange for each Group Tutors to give a sheet of paper to one member of their class - for those classes sitting close to the front of the assembly hall the sheet had to be given to a boy, for those at the back it went to a girl.

During the assembly the nominated members are asked to stand up, and were told their goal:

  1. get your A4 sheet of paper into the bin at the front of the assembly hall

They were also given the following rules, in the interest of fairness:

  1. participants must not move from their seat, nor move their seat
  2. the sheet of paper can be shaped in any way so long as nothing is added or removed
  3. no other person may help to move the sheet towards the goal

The pupils are then invited to send their sheet of paper, now inevitably scrunched up into a ball or fashioned into some hopefully aerodynamic craft, hurtling towards the bin.

This is an exercise in realising that privilege helps you to achieve your goals. It’s not that someone at the back of the hall is not able to reach the goal, but it requires an extra bit of skill, ingenuity, or perhaps luck. Those nearer the bin can more easily achieve the goal with perhaps a suboptimal projectile or a carefree throw.

All the pupils had a level playing field. Equal opportunities. The same rules. The same rewards. Oddly the boys were more successful.

My challenge to female pupils was to not sit back and allow inequality as they journey through life. My challenge to male pupils, and indeed myself, was to recognise their own privilege and to work towards countering it.

  1. Apologies to Business Management teachers, or anyone else for that matter, who may find holes in any of my explanations of how companies operate. I have been intentionally simplistic in my approach but hopefully not actually inaccurate. Happy to be corrected.