Despite huge progress in multiple fields, women are still being held back from certain professions by staid attitudes
Jobs for the girls: why campaigning for a woman's work is not yet done
“The intellectual type of Englishwoman would be at a disadvantage when dealing with foreigners,” the British ambassador to Berne opined in 1933. “For, to put it bluntly, the clever woman would not be liked and the attractive woman would not be taken seriously.” He was making a pronouncement on whether women should be allowed to take up diplomatic roles as ambassadors for their country. In fact, it took another 43 years for Britain to get its first female ambassador. Anna Warburton was appointed in 1976, three years before Margaret Thatcher became the first female British prime minister.
The views about women’s ability and suitability for such high-profile roles have deep, historic roots, yet they reared their head again at last week’s Diplocon event in Abu Dhabi, which revealed that even in the modern age, less than one in five ambassadors from G20 countries are women. Part of the age-old justification for preventing women from taking up such roles was the reductive argument of saying they could be one thing or the other, but not both: clever or attractive, working or a wife and mother, married or ambitious, successful or feminine. As the writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir once said: “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
Seeing women through such a one-dimensional prism is so ingrained that even today, if they are perceived to have more than one quality, they are given such epithets as “career woman” or “working mother”. If you want a hint of how ridiculous that is, imagine if the same language was applied to men. Have you ever heard of a “career man” or a “working father”?
What the British ambassador in the 1930s was also articulating was the exclusivity of the men’s club, which holds women back from advancing in so many industries – whether that is diplomacy, sports, banking, corporate life or the law. We had another taste of that this week, with a debate raging in the UAE over whether girls should be taught rugby or cookery in schools to prepare them for adult life – although gratifyingly, many commentators have advocated the benefits of both genders learning how to cook and play sports equally. It is in the intimate quarters of the men’s club that decisions are made and power is wielded. It is also where support is generated and alliances are formed.
The story of women’s progression – especially in such influential fields as diplomacy – has been further hampered by a convention known as the “marriage bar”, which prevented married women from entering certain professions. It was based on the commonly held belief that married women were supported by their husbands and therefore in less need of employment and that they were less reliable, because as soon as a sparkly ring was slipped on her finger, a woman would merrily skip out of the workplace and wave goodbye to her career.
Such presumptions might not be so blatant these days but the idea of the marriage bar has morphed somewhat into a motherhood bar and continues to plague women, in social attitudes if no longer in law. And it happens across many industries; it’s just more apparent when applied to high-profile, high-visibility jobs.
The kinds of regulations restricting women from entering certain fields are thankfully a thing of the past and gender equality is now enshrined in the constitutional process of many nations around the world. As a result, we have seen more women in recent decades running businesses, becoming chief executives of big corporations, reaching the upper echelons of the political sphere and taking up traditionally male-dominated Stem professions. But it is one thing changing the law; another changing people’s entrenched attitudes, which can still affect women across all sectors, not just diplomacy.
Often, working hours are not suited to women, who continue to carry the bulk of responsibility for childcare. Women who opt for flexible or reduced working hours for a period of their careers are deemed unreliable or lacking in commitment. Meetings arranged outside regular working hours lead to some people missing out on vital networking, influence and decision-making. There is also an unconscious bias often in play, which leads to people recruiting and promoting people in their own image – for which, read men promoting other men who are just like them.
Undoubtedly, there has been huge progress made in recent years. Just look at the Forbes 100 most powerful women list, which features the likes of Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Susan Wojcicki, the chief executive of YouTube. Increasing awareness of the problems and a will to implement legislation to tackle them provide the right foundation to overcome these issues. But tackling attitudes is a long process. We need to start by changing the way we describe women’s roles – and one day, hopefully, we might no longer need to specify if someone is a “female ambassador”.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World