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First Women Summit 2016: Should prejudice sometimes be ignored to further female agenda?

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A recent court case involving a female assistant showed the potential cost of defending discrimination cases. David Noake, the boss behind a banned cancer “wonder drug” was found guilty of sex discrimination after writing “Red lipstick, heels – good” on his personal assistant’s job application. He was taken to an employment tribunal by said assistant, Lucia Pagliarone, who further claimed she had witnessed sexist treatment after going to work for him.

Most employers are aware that the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of protected characteristics such as sex. What isn’t so well known is that under this legislation anything done by an employee in the course of their employment is treated as having also been done by the employer, even where the actions occurred without the employer’s approval or knowledge. With that in mind, do enough women step up to the plate when they feel they’ve been discriminated against?

At our First Women Summit we posed the question of whether women needed to turn a blind eye to prejudice in order to further the female agenda, to our panellists – spanning, comedian Katherine Ryan, Diamond Logistics founder and First Woman of Entrepreneurship winner Kate Lester, fellow First Woman Mandeep Rai and barrister Charlotte Proudman, who sparked the famous controversial LinkedIn debate.

Talking of inequality, Ryan explained recently that despite the BBC declaring there should be at least one woman on every panel show, female comics still have to contend with the debate about whether women are funny. She said: “Yes, I think we do, and that’s unfortunate because you don’t want to feel patronised, or that you haven’t earned your place. TV has to be representative of society, but there are still some white male comedians who argue the BBC’s stance is not fair.”

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That being said, Ryan suggested at the Summit that she had to put herself through university by working at Hooters, which involved turning a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour in order to get paid. That, and the fact that the board’s staple diet of old white men were borne of a  generation that ate too much red meat simply meant we needed to be patient – “they may soon keel over and then we can replace them.”

On a more serious note, she claimed to be worried that 2016 would be a treacherous year for the man given that any small issue seemed to be blown out of proportion – “men now don’t know what they’re supposed to do.” How would that help anyone?

In much the same light, Lester claimed we had tipped the scales into an all-out war. As such, women needed to create strategies and assign priorities to what needed to be done. And one of the weapons to our disposal was to pick our battles.”When anyone is confronted, the outcome it almost always end negatively – public humiliation of small scale arguments would only break down the walls we were trying to create,” she said. So in order to secure long-term results, women needed to be appropriate in their response.

After all, “we’re trying to facilitate an evolution, not create a revolution,”she said. “Blowing minor issues out of the water will make true cases be overlooked.”

However, Proudman is of a different belief. Taking note of Pagliarone’s case, she stated that Pagliarone could have ignored the signs, turned a blind eye and have continued with her job. But would that have been the right thing to do? Ultimately, she chose to report her boss, and since then the case has garnered wide-spread attention. She stood up for equal rights, and more should be following her example.

“Not challenging the stereotype will do nothing to further the female agenda – it would end up becoming part of the problem,” she said. “But the onus should be on the employer and not on the individual woman. As such, there needs to be a zero tolerance policy, as well as a 50 per cent quota system in all areas.”

This point of view was echoed by Rai, who claimed that despite achieving better grades than their male counterparts, females were still being discriminated against for being able to get pregnant, whether they wanted kids or not. But according to research, “if gender inequality was eradicated, then it would become the precursor for wining all battles pertaining to diversity,” she explained. “As such, it is the single biggest obstacle in the world to overcome.

“But for that to happen, women need to not only lean into the conversation, but have something to lean on as well – both in an emotional and institutional capacity.”

There is merit to both sides of the conversation. Which side of the fence or you on?

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss the Real Business First Women programme:

Drawing on years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit  designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.

For those seeking to enter the First Women Awards, nominations are still open

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