Battle of the sexes – is your office equal enough?

Back in the 1970s, the world of work was a somewhat different place to that of today. Forms of sexist behaviour that would not be tolerated today were accepted as the norm then, while it was only in 1970 that the Equal Pay Act was introduced.

Despite that ground-breaking piece of legislation – updated in 1995 and in the Equality Act 2010 – making it illegal to pay women less for doing the same job than men, pay has been just one of the areas where equality and fairness have not been fully achieved.

In assessing how well their company is doing, bosses need to consider where they have come from and also how much further they have to go to identify both achievements that can be built on and stubborn challenges that remain hard to address.

An individual who did more than most to stand up for women as professionals was Billie Jean King. The tennis star received a lifetime achievement award in December at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year programme for her work in fighting for women’s equality in the sport.

Billie-Jean’s pivotal achievement came in 1973 in an exhibition match against Bobby Riggs, a former Wimbledon champion who was in his 50s by then, but who claimed any man – even he in middle age – could beat any woman. When world number one Margaret Court took up his challenge in the first ‘battle of the sexes’, Riggs won easily, as if to undermine his point.

Ms King agreed to challenge Riggs in a second match in Houston, with the self-style male chauvinist playing his role to perfection off the court. On it, however, he was thrashed in straight sets.

Having proved a key point, Billie-Jean King was subsequently an active campaigner in the ultimately successful quest for equal pay at Grand Slams, and tennis is one of the very few sports where the top female players are as high-profile as the men.

The question is, does your office need its own Billie-Jean to put wrongs right? With the coming of a new year, now may be a great time to carry out an audit of your office and its practices.

Managers and their colleagues can ask themselves some important, searching questions. For instance, are women underrepresented in senior positions, and if so, what underlying reasons might there be for this? Are there any instances of unequal pay that have slipped under the radar? Are sexist attitudes among staff on display and not being curbed?

Of course, it is important not to take things so far that you harm staff relations; there is nothing worse than a them-and-us division between the genders. The purpose of the exercise should simply be to ensure there is a level playing field.

After all, when all is said and done, a company that makes the most of the potential in its workforce will be sure to benefit from such an approach. Just as tennis is not all about the Federers and Murrays, so your office shouldn’t be either.

Taking care to ensure everyone has a fair chance to progress means that all those with talent and hard work to offer will be able to thrive and help your company flourish.

Does your office need its own Billie-Jean to ensure fairness between the sexes?


Image credit – Gage Skidmore, Peoria, AZ 

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