Women and equality at the workplace
History This Week
By Cecilia McAlmont
April 13, 2006
Last month Guyana and the rest of the world celebrated International Women's Day under the theme "Women in Decision Making." It is patently obvious that Guyanese women, like women worldwide, in power and decision-making are few and far between.
One of the issues that significantly influence our women's ability to rise to decision-making positions in our organizations is the inequality at our workplaces. The issue of equality at the workplace and its impacts on Guyanese women in particular are the subject of this article.
Origins of inequality
The issue of equality for men and women at the workplace has its basis in beliefs, which are still accepted today, in the public and private worlds epitomised by the government and the economy on the one hand and the family on the other. The public domain was a man's world of competition, aggression and rationality, but the private domain - the family - was the woman's world of compassion, tenderness and loyalty. The literature posits that women and men in many societies, including our own, have separate spheres and different personalities, women's naturally disqualify them from many jobs. As the defender and protector of women, men felt they had the right to protect them from unfeminine jobs. Feminine jobs came to be associated with those, which were, in fact, extensions of their caring and nurturing roles. Even in agriculture where, there are significant numbers of women participating, women gain their livelihood from different crops or livestock from men. This pattern rests firmly on gender lines and is accompanied by differences in power and remuneration.
The difference in remuneration for jobs, specifically similar jobs done by men and women, is one of the main indicators of the lack of equality between men and women at the work place. This harks back to what has been described as the 'family wage concept.'
Men had to be paid more because they were supposed to take care of the family. Women earned less, even if they had no husbands but had children to take care of. This was sanctioned by legislation. No doubt this concept was applied to the way in which benefits were allocated to men and women. Men received more benefits than women - medical - etc. because it was their job to protect and take care of the family.
The courteous, polite, gentlemanly behaviour of men towards women, such as opening doors for them or expressing concern for their safety, seems to imply respect and affection. But this behaviour not only subordinates women, it also limits their employment opportunities by reinforcing the notion that women are in need of special protection.
The Guyana situation
In Guyana, certain subjects done by girls lead to their being placed mainly in the arts stream. Even at the university this is evident.
The skills they acquire restrict women to lower paying jobs within organisations. Cultural definitions regarding the types of work appropriate for women also act as constraints. Past government regulations all have impacted negatively on equality for Guyanese women at the work place. In Colonial times, even if they had the same qualification as men, women were not permitted to enter the service as clerks, only as secretarial staff and if they married they, like teachers, had to leave the service. This discriminatory practice was abolished after independence. Yet the recruitment trend persisted.
Today, many women work at the lower levels of the civil service, but their numbers dwindle as pay, status and levels increase. Despite the trend towards the "feminisation" of the civil service, women might never dominate the highest levels of decision-making. In the National Development Strategy, it is admitted that gender relations are skewed against women and that in the world of work it is women who are overwhelmingly responsible for the unwaged and unvalued work of family care and family subsistence. It is women who are allocated the most low-paid and low-valued service work outside the home.
Gender equality therefore does not exist in many of our workplaces. Countries have developed gender equality policies and goals precisely because equality does not exist. There is an imbalance in the relative positions in women and men that is reflected in a pattern of male dominance over social and economic resources. Since it is women who are now generally excluded or disadvantaged in relation to social and economic resources and decision-making, efforts to redress imbalances are focused on women.
Guyana has made commitments to gender equality. We have signed the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted national policies on women and also enshrined in our 1980 constitution the notion of equal rights in all areas of life. Article 29 of the 1980 constitution was made enforceable by the Equal Rights Act of 1990. Gender equality entails that the underlying causes of discrimination are systematically identified and removed in order to give men and women equal opportunities in every sphere of life. It must also be stated that although a large number of women work in the public sector, the private sector has an important contribution to make in the achievement of gender equality. Designated as the 'engine of growth', increased participation of women in the labour force will translate into increased numbers of women in the private sector. The challenge is to ensure this leads to women's economic empowerment and does not further exacerbate inequalities between women and men both in the private and public sectors.
Many Guyanese men blame problems of teenage children on the mothers being away at work even while acknowledging that they and their families' lifestyle - the nice car(s), posh home, frequent holidays - are often only possible because of the sometimes significant earnings of the mother. Sometimes, too, women as head of households are compelled to work for their own and their children's upkeep. It has been stated that Guyana has no "glass ceiling." The small number of women who wield effective power in the boardrooms of both our public and private sector organisations and are in the higher echelons of decision-making gives the lie to this contention. This contention is made on the ground that all Guyanese women have equal access to employment and perform as well and better than men. However, as mentioned, Guyanese women's access to employment with significant remuneration and power is circumscribed by gender stereotyping in jobs and education. For example, there is no consideration of how much the burden of home, family and work eats away at a woman's time and saps her energy.
Overt forms of discrimination continue to exist in our society. Take the ease with which men can associate outside the work environment. They play golf, tennis, cricket, pools and billiards together after work, go to the gym, or just have a drink with the boys. These associations are used to foster their own career development. Most women, on the other hand, are most likely to use their time after work to do the domestic chores. This latter means that not many women can work late into the evenings and this can hamper their prospects of promotion to higher managerial and executive positions within organisations. Then too because there are fewer or almost no women's clubs this avenue for career development is not an option.
Work place issues and how they affect equality
Even though large numbers of women come to the work place, the work place has failed to make adjustments to accommodate them. It still has male schedules, meeting times fixed to suit men not to mention the time for male extra-curricular activities. There is very little support in the workplace for women and mothers.
This lack of accommodation and consideration for women undoubtedly contributes to the lack of equality for women at the workplace. Workplace discrimination can be said to be a product of the system as much as the individuals within it. In a family business where decisions about pay, benefits, hiring and firing are closed, equality for women at those workplaces is dependent upon the perceptions of the owners about women. Note the numbers of businesses around Guyana which state so and so and sons, seldom, if ever, and daughters. An examination will show that in some cases not only are there daughters, sometimes just one son, the daughters work in the business and are sometimes as proficient or, even more proficient, than the son(s). In such organisations too, if women are sexually harassed (unfortunately sometimes by the boss himself) or face other forms of discrimination, they have little recourse but to leave the job since the workers in few of our private businesses are unionised.
There are other issues that impact on equality at our workplaces. For example, in the banking system promotion to a manager may involve service at out of town branches.
This could automatically put a cap on the number of women who could be promoted since for many women family obligations would make out of town service virtually impossible. The overall physical working environment can also indicate the extent to which there is equality for women at the workplace. Has an organisation, which has say 65% women of child-bearing age on its staff provided enough bathrooms? Does the organisation provide day-care facilities for the children of working mothers? These issues can affect her productivity, concentration and performance and ultimately her promotional possibilities. Additionally, in Guyana, as in other parts of the world, spousal abuse which can affect production and productivity is regarded as a private family matter. Somehow women who are being abused are expected to put it behind them when they come to work and "just get on with the job."