I used to feel immune to gender discrimination. I’d been extremely successful, trained as a doctor and set out on a successful career in medicine. Being female clearly hadn’t affected me!
But this was incredibly naive. Looking back, I’d failed to recognise the complex nature of oppression when I held this view. I was blind to my own significant privilege. As a white, middle-class, educated, heterosexual, cisgendered woman, clearly the discrimination was tempered.
However, subtle hues of gender discrimination colour every part of our society. I haven’t been exempt from this.
As a junior doctor and as a GP, I’ve been repeatedly referred to as ‘nurse’, even when I’ve introduced myself as a doctor, simply because my face fits more easily into that role.
I’ve been asked in work interviews if I intend to have children, and one former employer joked: ‘Aren’t you proud of us? We chose the best person for the job even though you’ll go off on maternity leave!’.
Every woman has – knowingly or unknowingly – made adjustments to herself to make herself more acceptable to her situation. This is ostensibly because male was, and still is, the standard; the default in our society. Many of the adjustments I made and the inequities I faced growing up were so normal that they were almost invisible. We are all products of a society that has silently but repeatedly taught us that men are more important than women.
An experience of being overlooked for a role at work made me reexamine this underlying culture of the workplace being skewed in favour of men.
I’d stepped into the arena and asked about joining a GP partnership, hoping to gain the ability to influence change. I was told that there wasn’t an opportunity in the near future. Not many months passed before one of my male, salaried GP colleagues, who worked similar hours to me, sheepishly took me aside and confessed that the GP partners had asked him to join the partnership.
The partners were surprised to know that I was upset and felt gender could have played a role. It was simply the case that they wanted a partner who could work full-time hours.
They felt that my colleague would be more likely to be able to fulfill this commitment, and hence I’d been eliminated from the running. I found this difficult to swallow.
Objectively, I felt that I was the better candidate. I was more involved in the workings of the practice, I’d been there longer and was a more experienced GP. I’d argue that my ‘softer’ traditionally female-assigned skills would have been invaluable to the business and a successful future.
I know that the doctors involved are all good people. So I accept that they may not have consciously considered my gender when deciding who they wanted as their next partner. However, I have no doubt in my mind that unconscious bias tainted their decision-making. Unless they had brought the gender issue into consciousness, how could it not?
Key to change is the fact that we cannot see the changes needed to establish gender parity in leadership as a woman’s issue. Men need to be part of the solution. They need to champion women and support talented female colleagues. We need to work in partnership to break down the inherent systemic barriers.
Gender equity means giving people access to resources and support they need to be successful. We need to recognise that, fairly or unfairly, the role of caregiver, whether to children or parents, is still a predominantly female role in our society.
Therefore, women are likely to benefit more from initiatives like flexible working hours. It’s outdated and simply not true that leadership roles cannot be part-time positions. We also need to recognise women have different life experiences to men and provide appropriate support.
Today, this conversation still feels uncomfortable and often makes men in the workplace defensive. This needs to change. Women and men need to champion women. Those with privilege need to hold the door open to those with less. It’s the responsibility of us with more entitlement to raise others up and invite them to the table.
‘We can change things’ – novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie encapsulates that change is possible so clearly in her 2013 TED Talk: ‘We should all be feminists’
“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”
Dr Lisa Finnikin is a salaried GP in Sutton Coldfield