This is a man's world: making work fit for women

An arresting polemic ended the CIPD’s Festival of Work this year, with journalist and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez OBE calling on HR and international managers to take action and design a world of work that fits everyone.

Man and woman with rugby bal
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This year’s Festival of Work was a valuable forum for discussing the long-running theme of inclusion. Held in the shadow of the death of George Floyd, the sessions resonated even more loudly than usual.The Endnote forum was an immediate and safe space for different voices to be properly heard in the context of making working life better for all.Picking up on themes highly relevant with Relocate Global’s Think Women Community and our International Women’s Day annual celebrations and networking event, Caroline Criado-Perez deconstructed the physical world, arguing male-centric design underpins the inequalities that lead to the gender pay gap.

Shifting mindsets and noticing transgressions

Explaining her perspective, Caroline Criado-Perez said: “I bring to attention what it not being noticed. It’s about shifting mindsets to get people to notice these incursions. One way is to ask people to notice when we use the male as default.”Caroline Criado-Perez took as her starting point “Reference Man”: a Caucasian male aged 25-35 years old, weighing 70kg. From architect Le Corbusier’s human-scale designs to car-crash test dummies, personal protective equipment (PPE) and uniforms for the armed forces and police service, Reference Man remains the baseline for all design, despite its origin in classical times.Yet the ramifications of Reference Man – and its corollary, women regarded as deviant from the norm – from a perspective of quality of life, wellbeing, life chances and mortality are significant.Women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured than men in a head-on car crash because the driving position and seat adjustments for those of a smaller stature put people closer to the danger zone. Seats are also too firm and designed to absorb a greater weight, while seat-belts are not designed for the female physique.Summer-Issue-in-text-banner1It’s not just car design. The current COVID pandemic has shown how Reference Man is impacting lives in other areas. Images circulated over the past few months on social media and in the press show the deep marks left on female nurses’ and doctors’ faces at the end of long shifts from ill-fitting PPE.Further, face masks that are badly designed for women and excess material in aprons and scrubs are costing women’s lives from COVID-19 disproportionally to men’s. This is particularly as women – and people of BAME heritage – tend to take up more of the front-line, lower paid roles in the healthcare sector.

From product design to working practices norms - the gender pay gap

These data add a new dimension to thinking about the opportunity cost to women of workplace structures and social norms around caring responsibilities; in particular, the gender pay gap, which Caroline Criado-Perez contends comprises the value of women’s unpaid domestic work.Lockdown has shed new light on this. Working mothers are continuing to do their paid work, as well as monitor and take the lion’s share of responsibility for their children’s education at home.In academia, Caroline Criado-Perez sees the impact of this in “academics who are women publishing fewer papers than their male counterparts.” This will have ongoing ramifications for female academics progressing their careers once lockdown ends.

Ask what it is you don't know 

The question therefore becomes what are we, as individuals, HR professionals, managers and international business leaders, going to do about this?A good starting place is to consider is the Henry Higgins Effect, a term coined by Caroline Criado-Perez to expose male-centric thinking. “This assumes that what men are doing and current practices are neutral, and the mindset ‘why can’t a woman be more like a man?’”From voice recognition, to research into women’s health, and the only recent addition of a period tracker to the Apple Health app (while daily Copper intake, for example, was in its first iteration and 50% of Apple users are likely to be women), the gender make-up of software development, research and design teams matter. They are having a very real impact on women’s life chances and the gender pay gap.In the workplace, one way of mitigating for these blind-spots and supporting more inclusive workplaces that give better outcomes in the process is to build teams, employ and develop people from the perspective of “finding out what you don’t know, as well as what you do already.”Something we can all do daily and in a concrete way is to be aware where the male perspective is being used as a default, for example in terms of flexible working and recruitment.“When we talk about rugby and football, there’s the assumption it’s the men’s game as the default,” says Caroline Criado-Perez. “But then it’s always women’s rugby as separate. How about we use men’s rugby and women’s rugby? This is a great way to start and to show why it matters.”

Caroline Criado Perez 

Caroline Criado Perez is a best-selling and award-winning writer, broadcaster and award-winning feminist campaigner. Her #1 Sunday Times best-selling second book, INVISIBLE WOMEN: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men, was published in March 2019 by Chatto & Windus in the UK & Abrams in the US. It is the winner of the 2019 Royal Society Science Book Prize, the 2019 BooksAre My Bag Readers Choice Award, and the 2019 Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award. Caroline was the 2013 recipient of the Liberty Human Rights Campaigner of the Year award, and was named OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2015.
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