Why are top positions in organisations occupied mainly by men?

Why are there so few women in the Cabinet?

Why are the majority of newsreaders/presenters/guests, older men, when they do not meet the standards of ‘attractiveness’ that are applied to women – of being young, thin, blonde and attractive? The abusive comments made about the wonderful and witty Mary Beard including being ‘too ugly for TV’ were truly shocking. Has any man been called ugly or vilified for being too clever and remaining grey?

Discrimination still starts early and ages well. It affects all women, at all ages and at all levels in organisations, but is more obvious at the top.

Working life for women often starts off badly, with lower pay, sexual harassment as the price for promotion, and some employers’ barely concealed fear of pregnancy and maternity leave.

Pregnancy might put a stop to the harassment but then the Mummy track kicks in and the glass ceiling comes down on promotion and  pay rises.

Flexible working is another career killer. I see so many women returners who, even if they are the main earner, are treated as though their lives are subsumed in nappies and childcare and as no longer having the same commitment to work.

So where does this leave older women? Stereotypes abound but there is no evidence that older workers are less motivated, less willing to engage in training, more resistant to change, more likely to suffer ill-health etc.

Miriam O’Reilly’s experience is telling. She won her claim for age discrimination against the BBC when, aged 50,  she was ousted from Countryfile and replaced with younger presenters.  The tribunal found the decision was based on her age, saying:

“it would not be proportionate to do away with older presenters simply to pander to the assumed prejudice of some younger viewers.”

There were also comments about wrinkles and hair dye. The Tribunal said:

“We do not doubt that older women have faced particular disadvantage within the broadcast media.”

Surprisingly perhaps it found the decision to remove Miriam was not sex discrimination.

At the time Miriam expressed her views to colleagues about the ageism and sexism of being peremptorily removed from her job; her work then dried up and she won her claim for victimisation. But the question remains: When did you last see Miriam O’Reilly on your screen? Although Miriam did return after the Director General accepted the tribunal decision and vowed to ‘cherish’ older female presenters, where is she now?

There are so many surveys showing that women lose out to men for no apparent reason. One found that women comprise almost half of lower-level academic staff but account for only around 20% of professors. Similar figures apply to women partners in law firms and other professions. In the TV industry, of the 18% of workers in the 50+ age group 24% are men and 9% are women despite being in the majority up to the age of 34. Between 2006 and 2009 5,000 women left the TV industry compared with just 750 men. These figures are repeated across so many workplaces.

The few brave women who successfully and openly challenge discriminatory decisions based on age and gender may gain some compensation, but the question is whether they will work in the same industry again? The fear of not getting another job is a very real one as Miriam discovered.

A huge barrier to exposing discrimination is that for the woman the price of being compensated for losing her job is an indefinite gagging clause. So, incidents of discrimination are known only to the parties of the settlement agreement: employer and employee. The perpetrator is free to continue the same behaviour and the woman is left without a job. Fair? I don’t think so.

So, what next? We need:

  • More women to join unions; there is strength in numbers;
  • More watching and counting, like Kira Cochrane did in her survey of male/female journalists, presenters, guests
  • More networking and peer to peer support for women going through discrimination at work
  • More challenges to gagging clauses which hide the discrimination and harassment that is so common in the workplace

Let’s keep blogging ideas about how to expose, challenge, fight this discrimination particularly on behalf of those too scared or vulnerable to speak out. That’s a role that us ‘older’ women can play perhaps better than women at any other age.

Posted on March 20th, 2013 by Camilla Palmer filed under: Work