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Solidarity Opinions

Who constitutes ‘women’? The whitewashing of Gender Equality

‘I was the only woman in the room, now that’s changed’ – reads the title of a recent BBC article, a direct quote from Kelly Becker, President at Schneider Electric (UK & Ireland). Whilst the improvement over the past 5 – 10 years in gender representation in board rooms has certainly been a welcome and timely change, I refrain from using the term ‘women’. Why? Because this is not an improvement that has been seen or enjoyed by all women. As the rather tone deaf (or perhaps blind, in this case) graphic used by the BBC, and provided by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, quite ironically shows – there has been an increase in the representation and promotion of *white* women in the workforce, with women of colour being left at the wayside of ‘D&I’ efforts. For most women of colour in corporate spaces and Senior leadership positions, the BBC headline would have read ‘I am the only women of colour in the room’, full stop.

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Source 1 – When this is the graphic that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy provide to show how the representation of women has ‘visibly improved’ we must take the graphic literally, and question how it managed to pass so many different eyes within the government and not be flagged for its racial homogenization.

There are many problems here, but one of the first is the BBC article’s generous use of the word ‘women’ without even considering what kind of women they are speaking about, and who they erase in the process. When a person of colour appears in the media, their ethnicity or the colour of their skin is always foregrounded. In D&I rhetoric, the number of ‘BAME’ people in an organization is always foregrounded, rather than the disproportionate number of white employees. Yet when we speak about white people, or women in this case, their ethnicity is an unmarked, unspoken norm. The BBC writes “this reflects a broader shift, with women now making up more than a third of top jobs at the UK’s 350 largest firms”, but their failure to cite that it is only white women making up that 30% speaks to the larger erasure of race/ethnicity from equality efforts.

This is not a new phenomenon. During the suffrage movement in the US, Sojourner Truth was one of many Black women abolitionists fighting for the rights of enslaved Black women. Whilst white women fought for equal rights, what they really meant was rights that make white women equal to white men. Truth famously stated,

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?”

– 1851 speech at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio

Fast forward more than 80 years, as second-wave feminists demanded equal opportunity and equal pay between the 1960s and 1980s, Black women still did not have access to equal and fair civil rights. African Americans were still facing segregation, violence, and were still unable to fully exercise their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870. Groups like The Combahee River Collective, for example, and pockets of the Civil Rights movement, were established by Black women to fight for their rights and civil liberties as they were excluded from the wider ‘women’s’ movement for equality. What we are seeing now is the same form of exclusion re-packaged – but in 2021, in our hyper-digitalised world that gives us access to this kind of information on-demand, shouldn’t we be doing better?

No matter how many people claim we live in a post-racist society, racism and segregation still exist – as is seen through the exclusive culture of the vanilla boy’s club. But these problems also permeate HR departments and corporate leadership. We have heard a lot of dialogue about affinity bias, which often falls into unconscious bias in the plethora of available ‘training’ programs currently circulating like wildfire. Yet what happens when the white men displaying affinity bias are told they need to be more inclusive? Often, they hire white women. And what happens when those white men in recruiting and leadership positions are replaced with white women? Often, those white women will also exercise affinity bias and hire alike – and the cycle continues.

Soon, the Vanilla boys club will become a Vanilla people’s club, and ‘D&I’ efforts will, rightly, be scrutinised for their lack of comprehensive understanding of inequalities. Unless an intersectional approach to gender, race/ethnicity, ability, sexuality, and socio-economic status is adopted, the BBC and other corporations will continue celebrating ‘diversity’ and ‘gender parity’ without truly understanding what it means. That is, until we have another audit in 5 years, or when another act of violence is recorded, and people decide to care again.  

By Tzeitel Degiovanni

Tzeitel is a co-founder of The Solidarity Collective and an LSE Gender Alumni. Originally from Malta, she specialises in the way cultural stereotypes manifest themselves within organisations, the media and politics. Tzeitel currently works in diversity and inclusion advocacy for the UK workforce.

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