#IWD2018: Same shit different century

Same shit different century – or are we finally seeing change?

Would the suffragettes have been disappointed with the progress to date of gender equality? Will 2018 different? I think it might.

John Stuart Mill said in 1867,  let’s be clear about this, it was 150 years ago:

This claim to confiscate the whole existence of one half of the species for the supposed convenience of the other appears to me, independently of its injustice, particularly silly’.

And in 2018 we are still having to deal with similar underlying resistance. To quote the Women’s March poster of 2017 “Same shit, different century.”  2018 has special significance for International Women’s Day for two reasons. Both reasons highlight the level of resistance to gender equality that women have experienced for more than a hundred years. Some would say always.  But the second also adds a touch of optimism and may possibly signal a sea change.

Female suffrage

2018 marks the centennial of women getting the vote in the UK. This followed 50 years of what had been a frequently violent campaign, resulting in the force feeding and even death of some suffragettes. It was indeed a start, but let’s not forget, a feeble one. While the Representation of the People Act 1918  kicked-off a major transition, it was actually limited and gave women the right to vote only if they were over 30, or who owned property or were married to a man who did. Resistance to this change was significant.

Repackaging gender equality

The suffragettes might possibly have been disappointed with the rate of progress after that date. It took another half century for Equal Opportunity and Anti-Discrimination legislation to be passed. To beat the resistance at that time gender equality was made more acceptable by incorporating it into the “Superwoman” anthem.  That slogan basically gave women permission to do something outside the home, but made sure we were still responsible for hearth and family. This has barely changed today. We saw the phrases “career woman” and “working Mum” creep into our lexicons, with no comparable terms for our male counterparts. As Kristen Pressner says when you “flip it to test it” – it sounds ridiculous. Career man? Working father?

Women were silo-ed even further by the “having it all” initiative, which women came to realise later was “doing it all, or managing it all” And still there were no great results. In 21st century, it was indeed “same shit, different century” as we ran into something called “second generation discrimination” or unconscious bias and how that makes us all closed to change. A decade later we were “leaning in,” some said until we were almost horizontal. And still the needle barely moved.

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Bundling gender equality

To get around this we are doing what women do well. We are playing the game, or allowing it to be played around us. We started to repackage gender equality to make it more palatable to resistant groups. And there are many. We tried calling gender equality “gender diversity” which also encompasses other sexual orientations. Then we worked with general diversity programmes, bundling gender parity with race, religion, physical ability, nationality, educational background etc.  Now more recently, it is part of wider Inclusion programmes. It’s a bit like having to persuade kids to eat their greens, by mixing them in with something else. Perhaps the thinking is if you don’t talk about it – it will happen.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, gender balance expert and author of Late Love says:

‘Gender diversity’ has been around for a long time, because ‘gender’ issues were unfortunately put under the ‘diversity’ bucket, which minimises the shift in the world that gender balance represents. People know when they are being made to swallow something they don’t want to. We bundle gender with nationality balance, because people in global companies ‘get’ that, then gender slides down with a strategic, burning business issue, not a bunch of nice to have minorities driven by international companies.”

And so it goes on

The fact remains that despite more than a century of campaigning, gender equality in 2018 remains frustratingly elusive. Women are underrepresented in senior roles, they do not receive equal pay, and are less likely to receive critical early management promotions  than men. They manage 80% of household work.  Companies need to approach gender equality with hard facts and big data and make business decisions accordingly. But they don’t. Women need to re-negotiate their relationships. But they struggle with that. As Avivah said in another article:

“If you can’t find a spouse who supports you, stay single.”

same shit different century

Research published in HBR has now found that there are “no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women. Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership, and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role. We couldn’t see the types of projects they were working on, but we found that men and women had indistinguishable work patterns in the amount of time they spent online, in concentrated work, and in face-to-face conversation. And in performance evaluations men and women received statistically identical scores. This held true for women at each level of seniority. Yet women weren’t advancing and men were.”

And women are starting to do just that.


This brings me to the second reason why 2018 is important and with it a level of optimism.  The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements highlighted the sheer scale of sexual harassment in all sectors, globally. This is pivotal. For the first time we are seeing real public consequences for at best inappropriate and worst illegal behaviour, as well as repercussions for bystanders and enablers. Some women have found the courage to stop playing the game of silence and collusion.  But even now I have seen people lamenting the tone of these debates. Of course gropers and letchers have redeeming qualities. I know many myself. But they need to understand they have to stop groping and being lecherous or pay the price. There is a whole body of women who now say #TimesUP.

International Women’s Day in 2018 has seen real issues being highlighted more openly than ever before but with real consequences for those who break the law. Are we finally witnessing the unbundling of gender equality to a worthwhile stand alone issue? Only time will tell if the “same shit different century” continues much longer.

Learning how to make your workplace more inclusive can be tough. A good start is to attend our event on How to Deal with Sexism and Harassment in the Workplace.


3Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Conversations about leadership, Culture, Gender Balance, Today in history
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Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.

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