Woman working at laptop

How to Create a Gender-Equal Workplace in the 2020s

Note* When discussing ‘gender’ in the following post, I will be referencing the gender each individual identifies themselves as in your workspace. As a given, all employees should feel free to explore their gender identity and to be respected for the gender they identify as.

As a woman who has worked in several offices over the years, I’ve experienced my fair share of discriminatory office behaviour. From sexual comments and inappropriate assumptions to degrading task assignments and straightforward bullying, my career has been littered with these frustrating and harmful judgements based on little more than the protrusions on my chest and what lies between my legs. It’s an exhaustive cycle that seems to run through so many supposedly ‘woke’ and ‘progressive’ industries, and even in 2021, the age of acceptance and gender neutrality, instances of micro-aggressions and discrimination are still being reported to this day.

So what’s the solution? Hail the rise of the ‘girl boss’ and install a matriarchal regime in which men fall by the wayside? Not quite. The aim of a gender-equal workplace should always be to make every employee feel welcome, respected and valued, regardless of their gender or any other protected characteristics they may have. Your workers should feel like they will be listened to in the same manner as their gender counterparts and that their requests will be taken on board and understood.

But it’s important to note that ‘gender-equal’ does not mean the same as ‘gender-neutral’. Where gender-neutral refers to a lack of gender characteristics and a significant absence of any male, female or non-binary features presented, gender-equal describes a circumstance in which all genders are acknowledged and yet treated exactly the same. Many workplaces might strive for gender-neutrality, believing it is the right move to make, but in reality, this can create more issues with workers and employees.

In today’s blog post, I want to explore exactly what a gender-equal workplace could look like and how your workplace can start making those vital shifts towards a more balanced and respectful working culture.

Listen to what your employees need

One of the problems many people have with the gender-neutral ideology is that different genders will, biologically, have different needs and requirements. Female employees, for example, in a gender-neutral workplace would not be able to access sanitary products during menstruation or take adequate maternity leave during pregnancy. As these are products that aren’t accessible or useful for men, this would not fall under gender-neutral requirements. However, in a gender-equal workplace, whilst unisex bathrooms might be a good idea, leaving baskets of sanitary products behind the stall door or in an easy-to-reach cupboard is a better way of allowing female workers to feel comfortable at work. Creating equal maternity and paternity leave periods is another useful gender-equal policy to enforce, removing the idea that women must take greater care of children, for a longer amount of time, than men.

Speak to your employees about ways that can feel more valued, appreciated and comfortable at work and respond to it in a way that meets their needs appropriately. Take the time to hear what lies beneath the complaints of ‘too much football banter’ and ‘overly-emotional employees’, and get to the bottom of the problem. Ask for their suggestions about ways to make the workplace feel more accessible to everyone, whether it’s changing up a seating plan, adding in some new furniture, or improving bathroom facilities…often even the smallest positive changes can help to make a difference to the attitudes of your workforce.

Stop making assumptions of gender-based tasks

In 2017, I worked in an office where the female employees were often given the most demeaning tasks, irrespective of their job role. As a marketing executive, I was told to answer the phones, make coffee for visitors, shop for new furniture, buy milk, pretend to be a PA, organise cleaning rotas and plan Christmas parties. My male counterparts were not. They were instead given the tasks of assembling furniture, setting up fantasy sports teams and maintaining our tech equipment. These small tasks might not seem like much on an individual basis, but over time they slowly build up into a much bigger problem of automatic, unconscious bias that can be uncomfortable for the employees affected.

Whilst these jobs and tasks do need to be completed, it’s important to evenly delegate them between all employees – not just those whose gender you might deem the most appropriate for it. Ask for volunteers to lift heavy items, rather than just picking the first four male employees you see. Offer jobs and tasks up, and allow the employees to decide for themselves who should complete them. Most importantly, create spaces in which no one gender is taking on the lion’s share of any task, whilst everyone else gets to sit at their desk in silence.

Create an open space to talk

Regardless of the gender of management, it’s important to create a workplace in which complaints can be shared, addressed and resolved in an equal manner. Understanding that problems surrounding personal issues, colleague friction, interpersonal relationships and work-based disputes will happen, and the best thing you can do is treat every member of your team exactly the same. Be open, honest and respectful about the complaints that come through your door. Take reports seriously and be authentic in the way you handle them.

Many women, for example, won’t feel comfortable reporting incidents of sexism to a male manager. Change that. Make yourself into a person that anyone will feel comfortable sharing their problems with and identify yourself as a manager who can make change happen. By actively responding to complaints of sexism, gender discrimination and bias and by correcting both your own behaviour and that of those around you to become more gender-equal, your employees are much more likely to respect you as a boss.

Re-educate yourself on micro and macro gender-bias

It should be formally stated – gender really does have no business in the workplace. Yet so much of the time it does. Often it can be found in larger, more definitive statements that can be easily addressed. Sexual harassment in the workplace, catcalling and wolf-whistling, making comments about hormonal women, requesting to know if women are on their period…these matters are or should be, simple to discipline and handle. However, it’s often the smaller infractions that many of us fail to spot the first time around. Opening a door for a woman, yet letting a man open it himself. Forcibly taking heavy items from women, despite the fact that they haven’t asked you to. Talking to a man about football and a woman about make up, with no prior knowledge that either of them like these topics. Overexplaining simple concepts to female employees, and underexplaining them to male employees.

The Gender Agenda recently released a study into the different ways employees and managers will communicate with each other based on their gender. It’s a great read, and a fascinating insight into these small, almost undetectable instances of gender bias happening within the workplace. Their report finds, for example, that women will often receive a more formal greeting than men in working spaces – where men will receive a casual ‘hey guys’, women will be greeted with ‘hello both’. This tiny shift in communication can make female employees feel excluded and detached from the larger team, creating an unconscious divide between colleagues. Many of the instances listed in the study are also useful to note and to look at when examining your own communications within your team – identifying whether you speak to your male and female employees differently.

Audit your existing workplace policies

No good will ever come from pretending you’ve done no wrong. Over the years time has changed us all, and we’ve all had to go through a steep learning curve when it comes to politically correcting our behaviours. There’s no shame in admitting we got things wrong and we made some discriminatory jokes, comments or criticisms before we knew any better – it’s a sign of progress and self-improvement that we should all be proud of. This is why it’s vital to start auditing the policies, behaviours and attitudes you already have in place in your workspace now, evaluating them and changing them before they become a problem.

Perhaps there’s an employee who you know likes to tell ‘blonde jokes’, and has done since they were hired ten years ago. Now is the time to tell them to stop. Perhaps there’s a policy preventing women from taking sick days for menstruation. Now is the time to change it. Perhaps your office has been inadvertently catered towards women for the past few years, and it’s been making male employees feel uncomfortable. Now is the time to change it. Whether it means seeing for the first time that your management team is a collection of straight, white, middle-aged men or going through some old accounts and noticing a significant pay gap between male and female employees, it’s never too late to look over your company with fresh, unbiased eyes. As everyone slowly trickles back into their workplaces after the pandemic, it feels like the right time to start making plans to be better this year, to start working towards gender equality in every part of your business.

Creating a gender-equal workplace doesn’t have to come at a huge cost to your team, but it might create a little friction at first while your employees get used to it. So be prepared for any small pushback and stand your ground on your new and improved policies. It’s worth it.

If you have any questions about gender-equal working spaces, or you want any more tips on how to make your workplace feel more inclusive, feel free to drop me an email at hello@nikkimccaig.com.

Thanks for reading.

Nikki McCaig

Nikki McCaig

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