If it doesn’t work for women, it doesn’t work for anyone

What needs to fall into place so women can work? Something just isn’t working. As the BBC reports, the pay gap still exists, with women more likely to earn less below the living wage compared to their male counterparts. What’s more, The Economist publication hosts an annual Glass Ceiling Index across 29 developed economy nations – taking higher education, labour force, pay, caregiving and representation in senior roles into consideration. Northen Europe fares quite well, but Britain only ranks 20th out of 29. Italy doesn’t fare much better.

In Italy, women have had the right to vote and be elected in parliament since 1945. Another parameter that the World Economic Forum uses to measure gender equality is “the number of years that a country has had a female head of state”. In Italy, that number is ZERO. We’ve been voting for 75 years, but we’ve never had a female head of state. What does that have to do with anything? It can’t be a coincidence.

The Italian prime minister said that “to guarantee a level playing field between genders, we need to work on the pay gap and welfare“. It’s like we’re on a running track, at the starting line next to our male counterparts. Only where the men have a clear path ahead, the women have to jump over the hurdles in front of her – clothes to wash, part-time contracts, a slalom of prejudice. Is our end goal to really have “a level playing field“?

Are we trying to pave the way for women so they can run like men?

If that’s the case, it would be better to work on services available to lighten the load for women in those 315 minutes dedicated to “free domestic labour” each day (compared to 104 minutes spent by men). It would be a case of removing those extra obstacles to leave space on the track to use it as intended.

But what if we needed to change the track all together? If 50% of the country is struggling, is that not a sign that the system isn’t working for anyone? What if the fact that half the population is managing to move forward is actually creating an illusion that our economy is working? Let’s take a break from the screen for a moment and then come back to that thought. The way we work hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years. A pandemic needed to happen before we could take a step forward together.

Before it risked our health, we thought it was normal to sit in traffic every morning to be able to clock in on time. Before remote working showed that we could do our jobs without being physically in the office, the number of hours we spent at work was seen as a good measure of how solid our career felt. Actually, presenteeism has taken on a life of it’s own in lockdown as well. It’s never been talked about, because our countries don’t champion guiding a corporate culture, they prefer loyalty.

What’s more, the working day ignores what happens at school: schools seem to forget that parents work (for example, in the summer). So adding more services isn’t enough. Paying people more wouldn’t be enough either: we’d have to ask companies how much they pay women, and to demonstrate if and why they are paid up to 30% less than their counterparts. The pay gap is a consequence, not an intention. It’s the consequence of a culture that sees the problem as a series of obstacles on a race track, so their first thought (without actually putting those thoughts into action) is to remove the obstacles. In that way, women can run and experience “competitive conditions”, just like men do.

So shall we make a list of 100 things to watch, measure and act upon to close the gender gap? Or shall we just accept the idea that this gap is a deafening sign that the system isn’t working for anyone? Everyone is limping along – just some limp less thanks to the fact others are limping twice as much. Could our running track look different? Maybe we could work in a different way so we don’t have to increase the amount of services available to keep us happy? Maybe we could work to making society happier in general? More nurseries to allow women to work as much as men, or a different way of sharing tasks, hours, compensation, dreams? Are we going to be more competitive so we can win first place, or are we going to invest more in “human capital” so the track welcomes everyone, even those who can only walk instead of run?

Maybe we can see this as an opportunity to make radical changes to the way in which we work. An opportunity to observe 100 things that are stopping women from progressing, connecting them and seeing how they are stalling politics and our economy. Women are the symptom of the ‘problem’, but they can also be the cure. By listening to them and giving them a level playing field, they’re not “competitive” but “contributors”. They don’t take something away from society, they contribute to influential decisions, radically pushing us towards a change that we can no longer live without.

When women will be able to work and live as they want to, and not like men do, we’ll have started to build a more sustainable future for everyone. If that’s what we want.

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza and published on the Il Sole 24 Ore blog, Alley Oop. To read the original article (in Italian), please click here