Mrs Despard, second from the right at the front row and wearing a black scarf and white waistcoat, leads a suffragette march by the National Federation of Women Workers in Bermondsey. London. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Then and now: 100 years ago, the focus was political; today, change is under way in the workplace

My grandmother, Betty, was born into a working-class family in the north of England in 1936. After leaving school at 15, she worked in a factory before falling pregnant at 17. She quickly married, wearing a serviceable suit, and the rest of her life was mapped out.

Despite her intelligence and curiosity, she would never have a career; but 60 years later, thanks to better access to education and greater social mobility, her granddaughter would be the first of her family to study at university and forge a career.

It is all too easy today to feel pessimistic about progress. Around us we see growing inequality, political polarisation and an uncertain future. Yet it would be wrong to ignore the incredible progress society has made in the past 100 years. In 2018, the UK marked the centenary of the Representation of the People Act. Next year will mark the centenary in the UK of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which allowed women to enter the professions.

Today, women are investing in their education and establishing careers. More women than men entered higher education last year in countries including the UK, Sweden and the US. But how does the increased access to education for women translate into the world of work?

Even women now enrolling at university will take years to reach the boardrooms of big companies. Change is under way, however, because women’s participation in the workforce is rising steadily. Research this year by Catalyst, a pressure group, found that more than 70 per cent of women aged 16 to 64 in the UK are employed.

However, we have built businesses where presenteeism is heralded over output. Society still expects more from working mothers than from working fathers: despite the introduction of shared parental leave in the UK, very few men opt to take it up for fear of damaging their career.

That said, millennial women are not waiting for the patriarchal structure of the workforce to adapt. Thanks to the internet, women can more easily work when and where they want. There has also been a shift in how women earn a living, opting for multiple sources rather than one regular income. They are experimenting with making money from a YouTube channel, an Instagram account or Etsy shop and are more in control of their working hours. Businesses that want to attract the best talent will need to adapt to this new way of working.

Just as campaigners for universal suffrage 100 years ago stood for equal representation, we need to decide what we stand for. Changing the structure of the workforce is a starting point, but to create lasting change we need further cultural shifts in the workplace.

First, we must banish the idea that women in leadership are “smashing the glass ceiling” or “breaking down barriers”, which, as Mary Beard states in Women and Power: a Manifesto, suggests positions of power are not theirs by right. Second, we need to redefine “leadership” to accommodate women, rather than making women fit into a male vision of leadership.

A diverse and successful workforce takes into account not only gender balance but also socio-economic background, ethnicity and more. This requires equal access to opportunity. If we don’t make this giant leap, we are only favouring a privileged few. If we really want to deserve our ancestors’ legacy, we must stride ahead with an equality agenda fit for the next 100 years.

The writer is a communications and public affairs manager, Google, based in Brussels.
The article is an edited version of the winning entry to the FT’s sixth annual essay competition, organised with the 30% Club and Henley Business School, to win a free executive MBA place.

The judges were: Claire Collins, associate professor, director of diversity and inclusion, Henley Business School; Pavita Cooper, 30% Club steering committee; Helen Rose, chief operating officer, TSB; Jan Gooding, chair of the board of trustees, Stonewall; Dana Denis-Smith, chief executive, Obelisk Support and founder of First 100 Years; and Harriet Arnold, assistant editor, FT Special Reports.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
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