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Sameness & Difference: Should women be calling for “equality” in the workplace?

by Bunty Kerray

If you’ve ever heard anyone talk about gender inequality in the workplace, you will have heard the famous statistic published by the New York Times in 2015: there were more CEOs named John, than there were female CEOs. And although ‘the Johns’ were overtaken by the end of 2016, the bigger picture remains much the same. A male to female ratio of 19:1 for CEOs and 6 ½ :1 for CFOs, as of year-end 2018, exposes a persisting underrepresentation of females in key executive positions.

The story is similar throughout all professional sectors, with women only making up the majority of the workforce in low-paid caring roles. The 2017 Glass Ceiling index by the Economist collated data on higher educated, labour force, participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights and representation in senior jobs. Their discoveries are extremely telling: the gender wage gap is still around 15%, meaning women as a group earn just 85% of what men do.

Clearly, there are very few women climbing the ranks at the same rate as men, and strong “old-boy” networks perpetuate the inequality by helping privileged men reach the top. Increasing awareness of this issue has sparked many campaigns to call for equality. But is equality, in the most traditional sense of the word, what women really need?

This is the question at the heart of the same-difference debate within feminist circles: when should a woman be seen primarily as a woman, and when should she be seen primarily as a worker? This impacts the extent we think the reality of motherhood, childcare and the misogyny-fueled sexualisation of women (especially in the workplace) should be reflected in the protection of women in labour law, as well as in wider legal structures. In the same vein, we must ask ourselves: what does equality really mean? Does it mean sameness defined by the benchmark of the male “normal”, that we are the same as men; or does it mean that in order to achieve real equality, our differences must be recognised in order to put us on a level playing field?.

I believe in the latter. Equality is not a question of sameness. It is about the difference: in particular, the differences that arise from the decades of oppression faced by women. In order to truly give women “equality of opportunity”, we must level out the playing field through positive discrimination.

“Discrimination”, in some contexts, is not always negative. In the case of President of South Africa v Hugo (1997), Nelson Mandela was accused of sex discrimination against men when he pardoned certain categories of prisoners who had not committed very serious crimes: one category being mothers with minor children under the age of 12. It is true that this case did involve discrimination on the basis of sex. But was this discrimination unjustified? This is an example of positive discrimination: Mandela’s reasoning was that mothers played an extremely significant role in the care and nurturing of young children, much more than that of men in South Africa at the time. Such arguments are transferable to our modern-day workplace context.

Critics of this reasoning put forward a ‘sameness’ argument: that equality means equivalence, and that ‘preferential treatment’ is unhelpful to feminism. Instead, the ultimate goal of feminism is for women to be treated exactly the same way as men. It states that we must disregard feminine experience, and the inherent differences between the obstacles that face women and men every day.

The sameness argument does have some credible claims that are worth exploring. There is a compelling argument that states that: by combating sexism against women, with what some may call a new “sexism” against men, it will compromise our values as feminists as it is going against equality; the very cause we are meant to fight for. Furthermore, it asks whether enacting positive discrimination disrespects women in lowering the standards we are judged against. This is the tokenism debate that sees women, and ethnic minorities arguably being employed to make up diversity and equality quotas in corporations. This may put women in a further state of subordination as even when they achieve representation in the workplace, they are made to feel as though this is not a consequence of their ability, but one of ensuring diversity.

However, the sameness argument must be rejected: it would worsen the female position by ignoring and further marginalising their experiences. This is because theories about equality may simply protect the status quo. If we insist upon equal treatment, even in circumstances of established inequality, this may well result in the entrenchment of that inequality. Equality ignores the experiences of women as the law structurally adopts the male point of view, marginalising the experience and voice of the majority of women. To combat this, our vision of total equality under the law must somehow be reconciled with our unequal social reality. True progress will only happen when we accept that it is not sufficient simply to treat men and women equally, in a society where they have not benefited from equal opportunities in the past.

We can see the favourable view of men in the workplace through how women are both treated and expected to act. First, unhealthy city working hours accommodate men over women. Arguably, the majority of men are only able to keep up with this work-life balance as they have domestic help at home to pick up the slack. City working hours are discriminatory towards women as they often do not benefit from the same help at home, as they themselves face the brunt of the childcare and household duties in many family structures. Second, successful women have also often been forced into co-opting masculine characteristics in their leadership strategy. This can be seen in the trend of power dressing in dark male-silhouetted suits, and the fact that statistically, female CEOs have short hair. This is a physical rejection of presenting as overtly female. Furthermore, the use of a lower more masculine authoritative voice has been encouraged. This can be most obviously seen in the evolution of Margaret Thatcher’s voice as a result of training by a tutor from the National Theatre aimed at lowering her voice (Look it up on YouTube!). However, it should also be noted that even if women do adopt these characteristics, they still cannot win. On many occasions, there is backlash towards women acting in a “masculine” way. They are often judged as being bossy and aggressive, while a man displaying the same characteristics would be heralded as a good and authoritative leader. We cannot continue to perpetuate the status quo which only benefits and forwards the interests of men. Female spaces in the workplace must be created through the recognition of our differences, and the rejection of dominantly masculine spaces.

Legal protection of women in the workplace must therefore be based on reality. It must consider the ways in which women are disadvantaged both biologically and socially, in a way that makes them unable to succeed in an environment made by and for men. The statistics shown above are only the tip of the iceberg of the hardships women face in the workplace, and their day to day experiences carry a multitude of further difficulties. In order to give women equality of opportunity, we must give them the leg up that men have had for hundreds of years.


Bunty is a third year law student at Magdalen College. She is particularly interested in human rights law and the importance of equality and diversity. She is also a Student Ambassador for Access and Outreach and Women’s Officer at her college. You may reach her at bunty.kerray@madg.ox.ac.uk