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Home  > Article

Equality Myths Around Women

By Elaine Sihera

If we all accepted that each person is different, but equal, we would already be half-way along the road towards creating a situation where the diverse workplace is not only essential to personal, professional and corporate growth, but one established as the norm. This is especially true as every industry becomes more gender diverse.

Why do women need to eternally justify their presence in the workplace through the concept of 'merit'? Is it a tacit acknowledgement that they are, in fact, 'inferior' and, if any woman actually makes it her gender has been done a great favour and they all should be grateful? Are women not entitled to be appointed or promoted without any undue enquiries as to their worth?

Perhaps such justification seems to be important because even the women themselves appear to have accepted that only men should get certain jobs, particularly in politics. Thus, if a woman qualifies at all to fill their shoes, there has to be much hullabaloo to convince everyone that the male 'standards' haven't slipped, neither will they be lowered and the 'fortunate' woman truly merited carrying the baton of male authority.

Incredibly, the act of always linking women with the word merit has not been seen as a gross insult by anyone, especially when many men have been appointed or elected to the highest offices because of their gender through the ubiquitous 'old boy' networks. On such occasions, the question of merit never seems to have any relevance at all. But women do have it in their power to change perceptions of themselves, especially if they take the initiative.

For example, in its first few years, the prestigious British Booker prize for the best book of the year mainly went to men, and mainly male authors were shortlisted. Few women writers seemed able enough to even be in that final list. Their writing was never perceived to be up to standard. When, in 1991, not a single woman was shortlisted, the Orange prize exclusively for women was introduced soon after that with an even bigger prize money than Booker, precipitating an indignant debate around its merits and rationale.

It raised hackles to the roof because, suddenly, women no longer had to wait forever to have their talents acknowledged by a virtual all male club.

Naturally, there were the most enormous cries of anguish about women being 'specially favoured' which was not a good idea, and how no one would want an award for men.

Anomaly and Inequity

Yes, no one would have wanted an award exclusively for men because, up until that moment, despite half the writers being women, only men were recognised in reality. So it was, de facto, an award just for male writers, regardless of what the fine rules and regulations said. All the awards up to then favoured men, so they did not need any special help to get them. Thanks to the Orange prize being there, the Booker prize is now genuinely recognising worthy writers of each gender, but it took another award to help it to see its early anomaly and inequity.

The female writers who have benefited from the Orange prize now have more publicity for their work; the public has had the chance denied them in the past to see more writers of quality and the good news for women all round (who make up 51% of the UK) is that they have been exposed to far more writers of all ilk than ever before. That has to mean greater literary benefits all round.

The notion of equal opportunities have a long way to go before women ever become truly equal. Perhaps we need a change of terminology to recognise the diversity of people and talent and reward that important difference, not expect everything to conform to the male standard. If we all accepted that each person is different, but equal, we would already be half-way along the road towards creating a situation where the diverse workplace (one which values men, women, minorities, people with a disability or different sexual orientation, for example) is not only essential to personal, professional and corporate growth, but one established as the norm.

Work would be a place where both men and women played key roles and be individually developed not because any one person specially merited it, or because of any particular gender or colour, but because each person is recognized as having a skill or perspective which is crucial to the economic development of the unit. True diversity would then become the framework within which each individual is able to contribute to the whole from an equitable standpoint, being able to develop their potential without fear or favour.

In such an environment, merit would cease to be of relevance because everyone would have a fully appreciated value, thus automatically 'meriting'

anything they earned. It would also be acknowledged that both men and women are essential to reflect the community being served, to the interest of balance and for providing role models. Every worker, regardless or race or gender, would then be able to experience true equality of opportunity, not granted to them by anyone, but justly earned through their own varied talents, unique contributions and appropriate hard work.

Elaine Sihera (Ms Cyprah - and ) is an expert author, public speaker, media contributor and columnist. The first Black graduate of the OU and a post-graduate of Cambridge University. Elaine is a CONFIDENCE guru and a consultant for Diversity Management, Personal Empowerment and Relationships.

Copyright 2008 All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without prior written authority.

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