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“No more the meek and mild subservients we!
We’re fighting for our rights, militantly!”
So sing the “Sister Suffragettes”, the chocolate box version of the women’s rights movement as depicted in Disney’s Mary Poppins. The reality of women’s suffrage was, of course, much bleaker than suggested by Disney and the recently released “Suffragette” focusses on the much harsher realities experienced by the pioneers of equal rights for women.
The irony of a movie about equal rights being written and directed by women at a time when only 2% of Hollywood film directors are female has not been lost. If anything the movie has continued to highlight an area of inequality that has never quite been resolved. Does the lack of women in executive roles within film companies directly correlate to the pay inequalities between male and female actors? This has been a hot topic recently with Jennifer Lawrence publishing an outspoken article focussing on the issue. She is not alone; Geena Davis has even set up a charitable foundation to promote equality and opportunity for women in the media.
In the relatively normal world that is not Hollywood things appear to be little different and despite the best efforts of many companies and individuals to invest in diversity initiatives progress has been slow, as illustrated by the following timeline:
1866: The first organised campaigns for women’s right to vote began to appear
1888: The Bryant & May Matchgirls’ Strike over dangerous working conditions
1903: The Women’s Social & Political Union is founded by Emmeline Pankhurst
1918: Women aged over 30 granted the right to vote
1920: The Sex Discrimination Removal Act allows women to enter the accountancy and legal professions
1928: All women granted equal voting rights with men
1968: Women at Ford’s Dagenham factory strike
1970: The Equal Pay Act
1975: The Sex Discrimination Act makes it illegal to discriminate against women in work & education
On 29th December this year (2015) we will be celebrating 40 years of the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act and there is no doubt that we live in a different time and improvements to equality over this time have been immense.
From a recruitment perspective we are seeing far more women progress to senior roles (some of them are even allowed to wear trousers to work!) and the move to flexible working is arguably of more interest and assistance to female members of staff. However, the deployment of a flexible working regime has to be balanced with business requirements, which can mean that even the most enlightened employers have to realise that staff in less senior roles where the option to work remotely and/or flexibly is not realistic are likely to be unintentionally penalised.
In short, we do not live or work in an ideal world, but for women in the UK the world of work is a far better place now than it was in 1866. And we continue to find our champions in the unlikeliest places; Meryl Streep was recently quoted as saying "Men and women are not the same, sometimes their tastes diverge. The word isn't disheartening, it's infuriating. People accept this as received wisdom... we need inclusion”. Emmeline Pankhurst, the middle class barrister’s wife from Manchester played by Streep in “Suffragette” would surely approve.