How one 8.30am meeting was holding back women in my workplace – and what we did about it

With one simple change to the schedule, we made it easier for parents to move up the ranks.

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Why are there so few women in senior management positions? This question came up from time to time again when I was Dean of Arts and Humanities at UCL and was a member of what I was never quite comfortable calling ‘the senior management team’. Each of those words is worthy of lengthy analysis, although I’ll leave that for some other time. I often asked my female colleagues at head of department level whether they were interested in applying for a position as Dean. Several said that they would not rule it out, but that now was not the time. Why not? Either they wanted to advance their research first, or they had school-age children and they couldn’t see how they could fit a higher management role in their lives and retain their sanity.

But of course, there were some women on the management team. And men with young children. No doubt there had been women with school-age children too at some point. So it can’t be impossible to combine the roles. Still, it can be very hard, and the rewards, they thought, are not worth the aggravation. Taking the conversation another step, I would ask what it was about the role that made it so difficult. After all, I was talking to people who were heads of their academic department, which is hardly a picnic in terms of work-life balance. The most common answer was that as Head, they could run the meeting schedule to their own diary, but as Dean you were expected to attend the SMT meetings that took place at 8.30 on Wednesday mornings. The combined pressure of preparing for the meeting, given the regular receipt of late papers, getting moody teenagers ready for school, and the rigours of a standard London commute, made the prospect unbearable.

After a few of these conversations it dawned on me to ask my SMT colleagues why we met at 8.30. How about 10.00? What difference would it make? After a bit of ‘that’s what we’ve always done’ and ‘it leaves the rest of the day free’, it was agreed that there was no really good reason, and it could be putting off some female candidates. Apparently, the issue had been discussed before, and left as it was. I suspect that many SMT members enjoyed the martyrhood of being known to sacrifice sleep for the good of the university. But this time a change was made. One small step for equality.

As a political philosopher, I’ve spent a lot of my time talking about discrimination. Explicit discrimination is foul, and although it can be hard to stand up to, it is relatively easy to spot. If you ignore it, it is likely to gnaw away at your conscience, and you may well resolve not to put up with it in future. Indirect discrimination, by which people even of good will can support practices that disadvantage people of particular types, slides by. You might glance it out of the corner of your eye, but it is often willfully ignored. The 8.30 meeting, it seems, is one such example of indirect discrimination.

Indirect discrimination is often an unintended consequence of practices which were chosen for what seemed like good reason. Unintended consequences can be bad, but they are also sometimes good, in which case we pretend they were intended all along. In the case of indirect discrimination, though, the consequences are likely to have been good for some and bad for others. If they were bad for those with the power to make changes, then, no doubt, changes would be made. But if they favour those in power but are detrimental to others, then there is every chance that they won’t even be noticed. And if they are pointed out, a shrug of the shoulders and a sardonic, ‘that’s sad, but it’s just the way the world works’ is the likely response.

But those in power often are able to make changes, at least if they coordinate their actions with others. They can lack the will and incentive because the system as it is suits them rather well. If only people like me can get a certain type of job, that improves my chances of success and promotion, or a job elsewhere if I want to move on. Indirect discrimination can come into being and reproduce itself through a type of evolutionary process. Practices, as we saw, often have unintended consequences. When those consequences are detrimental to those with power, changes will be made. When they are to the advantage of those in power, but to the disadvantage of others, then they will be left as they are. Hence, over time, practices adopted for other purposes will be selected for in part on the basis of how much they reinforce privilege. No one intends this, or even realises it is going on, but it is a type of natural evolutionary drift. If we really believe in equality of opportunity then we need a thorough-going audit of the ways in which what we do preserves, even consolidates, an unjust status quo.

Jonathan Wolff is Professor of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University