Women Today, Women Tomorrow

A debate at the Hay Festival discussed the obstacles holding women back in the workplace.

What are the main issues facing women at work today? Women Today, Women Tomorrow, a recent study of the former students of Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge found that the biggest challenges they face is a lack of support in the workplace. That included bullying, direct discrimination, the feeling that they had to work harder than men to be recognised and a macho culture. Almost a third of 20 to 30 year old answered that this was their biggest challenge so it was not just a problem for older women.

The women were asked what would make the workplace more appealing to them. Some 42 per cent answered that progress should be based on merit. The report noted the different ages and stages of women and their attitudes to work – 20 somethings were more focused on their careers; 30 to 50 year olds were more likely to say a mix of family and career issues were important to them, while over 50s had often moved back into career mode, were focused on community work or were caring for relatives. Women's working lives were clearly not linear.

The report was the kick-off point for a debate at the Hay Festival this weekend. Dame Barbara Stocking, President of Murray Edwards College and former CEO of Oxfam Great Britain, was joined by three former students representing different age groups – author and businesswoman Frances Edmonds, singer-songwriter Polly Paulusma and journalist Ellie Pithers.

Stocking asked what could be done to transform a workplace which was often "alien" to women. She said this was not a women’s problem. “It’s an issue for men and women. There’s a lot in the work culture that men don’t like either. We have to work together,” she said.

Edmonds, who runs a business development network, said a lot of women chose self employment after confronting discrimination. She added that it it was important to make the business case for a more diverse workplace, for instance, that diverse businesses were more profitable. Just arguing that it was unjust would not work. 

She felt women needed to be more confident and assertive and build their leadership and communication skills. Pithers, though, said her generation were not shy in coming forward. They were the Facebook generation and spent their lives “bigging themselves up” and, in the media at least, had strong skillsets, particularly in areas like social media. Members of the audience objected to the idea that women lacked the right skills for success. They said the problem was rather that women’s skillsets were not valued. One woman said: “It is work that has to change, not women.”

Having a more diverse workplace could change things dramatically for other women, said a journalist in the audience, but this required eternal vigilance to ensure numbers did not suddenly drop down, leading to a reversion to the old-style culture.

Other issues discussed were how men tended to negotiate higher salaries than women for the same job; the cult of presenteeism which meant many managers still turned down applications to do jobs flexibly; and the fact that career structures were still far too geared towards achieving certain things at certain ages.

Stocking ended by stating again that women and men had to join forces to change a culture which Polly Paulusma said was not fair to men either. She said: “We have got to work with men to create a better balance between work and life for all of us.”


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