Sexism in the Workplace


This article was originally published on the Springboard Consultancy blog. Springboard is a small women’s development training consultancy, wanting to make a difference, so they train and license other trainers to use their materials. In this way they can make a big impact: over 230,000 people have used their programmes and over 1,300 trainers have been trained in over 30 countries around the world.

What’s going on in universities?

- Liz Willis OBE (co-founder of the Springboard Consultancy)

On Tuesday of this week, I read an article which described a professional workplace where, currently:

  • ideas are ignored if offered by a woman, but considered worthy of debate if repeated by a man
  • presentations are all about men, with male examples and male case studies
  • men are introduced as being great achievers, whilst women are introduced unenthusiastically
  • women asking questions are ignored whilst men asking questions are given attention
  • women are hugely outnumbered and relegated to junior posts
  • more women are on temporary contracts than men.

I had a horrible sense of deja-vu. This is exactly what I had experienced myself – but 40 years ago. Many of us have devoted our working lives to change this situation. Repeatedly, we’ve been told that the world of work will slowly change, incrementally, and we just need to be patient. That the new generations of men are different, brought up by a generation of feminist mothers. That our culture is changing, that sexism is not considered ‘cool’ by younger men. That we are approaching a gender-neutral workplace. That employers are falling over themselves to recruit and retain women.

And yet I read that article by Selina Todd, on Tuesday, and realised all over again that we cannot take anything for granted – it’s not going to happen by osmosis – and we should NOT be patient.

The workplace being described in the article is found in British universities and the women interviewed are academics. The article is positive, because it’s about what they’re doing about it. They have started a group at the University of Oxford, concerned about the position and treatment of women in universities. Unusually, they also have some cash – to provide grants, seminars and fellowships to support women academics in the humanities.

On 6th March, this group is hosting Oxford University’s International Women’s Day Celebration at St Hildas College, to plan how to promote a form of higher education that offers an alternative to the sexism they currently experience.

Good for them. One thing’s for sure – we cannot go on as we’ve been doing. I do not want to go on reading about that sexism in the workplace again. It’s not reasonable to go on being reasonable about this – we’ve been wonderfully understanding, patient and reasonable for far too long.

Our clients are the enlightened employers who are trying to make things different. They are often men. They deserve support, but they also need the pressure on them to be maintained.  The University of Oxford is very active in supporting women – both as staff and students. They pioneered our popular ‘Sprint’ Programme for women undergrads and Masters students and have been using our ‘Springboard’ Women’s Development Programme for years. There are many excellent initiatives being vigorously promoted there, which is brilliant – but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be even more.

Even actor Patricia Arquette was talking about the need for gender equality – at the Oscars – also this week!

I’m sure none of us want this sexism to continue. So if you’re already taking action – hooray!  And if you want to know where to start – it’s International Women’s Day next week – the perfect opportunity to do something different!


Women in the Humanities