Changing images of women at work

Bored with predictable images of women at work and home? A new collection of stock photography aims to reduce inaccurate stereotypes in the media.

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The Gender Jobs Split remains stark

Women in aircraft photo

We urgently need to widen career aspirations of the UK’s young women – and we need to start young. Despite several decades of progress, gender inequalities are still rife in today’s labour market: women continue to be paid less than men (with the gender pay gap even increasing slightly last year), they are overrepresented in low paid industries, are less likely to make it to the top positions, and are still absent from many boardrooms. By Katy Jones at the Work Foundation

A major factor behind this is that women are still far more likely to take on more than their share of caring responsibilities, for both for their children and older relatives. With care options limited by an inadequate and expensive supply, many have no choice but to either leave the labour market entirely or seek part-time work which is often only available in lower paid occupations. However, in The Work Foundation’s recent research for the TUC – The Gender Jobs Split – we found that divisions are stark, even in young men and women’s first few years in the world of work (before many must take on caring responsibilities).

Our report highlights persistent gender divisions at all levels of the youth labour market – but these are most stark at the lower paid end, with men and women dominating occupations traditionally regarded as male (e.g. manual jobs) and female (e.g. caring and personal service jobs). For example, about 20% of young men work in ‘skilled trades’ occupations, compared with 1 % of young women; and 20% of young women work in personal services, compared with 5% of young men. These gender divisions have been remarkably persistent and we’ve seen depressingly little change over the past few decades. This has significant implications for young women as they are much more likely to enter jobs with lower pay and fewer progression opportunities.

Addressing these divides is no easy task. In our report, we made several recommendations about how these issues might be tackled. Part of the solution is to challenge traditional gender roles at an early stage and ensure that young women (and young men) have better information about the opportunities associated with pursuing different kinds of careers.

The struggle to help young women break into the top high paid careers is an important one, but efforts need to be pitched at all levels, with more focus on the bottom end of the labour market which is most divided. Campaigns like Inspiring Women are vital to widening the career aspirations of young women, and their focus on state schools is really important in ensuring that whatever their background, young people’s aspirations and, in turn, choices are not constrained by their gender.

“Ever read an article about Helmut Kohl’s dress sense?”

German politician Kirsten Lühmann on how her first career in the police prepared her for sexism in parliament. Philip, Oltermann reports in The Observer 9 Feb 2014.

Germany‘s chancellor has been voted Forbes‘s most powerful woman on the planet six times in the last seven years. And even if you take Angela Merkel out of the equation, the country does better than most of its neighbours in terms of female political representation: 36.3% of members of the current parliament are women.

But getting to that point has been a long struggle. Kirsten Lühmann, 49, has more experience in fighting against male dominance than most of her colleagues. A member of parliament for the Celle region in Lower Saxony since 2009, as well as one of her party’s spokespeople on transport, she was formerly one of the country’s first female uniformed police officers.

“In my time on the beat, women were still seen as too weak, too much in need of protection. One colleague used to say he didn’t like going on patrol with female officers because he always ‘had to look after them’. So I asked him, ‘Don’t you have to look after your male colleagues as well?'”

Making herself heard in politics was easier, she says, not least because her party, the Social Democrats, had introduced a 40% quota for female candidates in 1988. She had also had children relatively early on in her career: by the time she was offered an entry into party politics, her three daughters were already 16, 17 and 19 years old.

“That’s the tricky thing for women in politics: at a certain level, you have to say yes when you get offered a chance. You don’t get asked twice. And when you are a mother with young kids, it’s really hard to make that kind of commitment.”

If it’s now easier for the next generation of women to combine family life with a political career, she says, it’s thanks to a series of landmark decisions in German politics. Lühmann points to a case in 2009, when a young politician from the Free Democrats was refused entry to the plenary hall because she had her four-month-old daughter with her. The guards had told her that she had to leave her baby outside, since the child wasn’t an elected member of parliament. A public outcry followed and the rules were changed.

Women in German politics don’t just have to fight against patriarchal parliamentary rules, but also against continuing prejudice in the German media. “Have you ever read an article analysing the dress sense of [former chancellor] Helmut Kohl, who was a fat man with baggy suit jackets? No. But every week there’ll be at least two articles about Angela Merkel’s haircut or her trouser suits.”

Lühmann herself gets several letters every week asking her why she always wears a red suit jacket in public. “Did a male politician ever get a letter complaining that they wore too many grey suits?” she says. Her answer is usually that she likes wearing red because as a tall woman in bright clothes it’s easier to stand out when surrounded by men in grey. “Breaking into politics is really tough if you are a short chubby woman. Short chubby men are legion in politics, on the other hand. It’s my luck that I am neither short nor overweight. But that’s not an achievement, that’s a coincidence.”

If Angela Merkel managed to break the mould, some say, it’s because she has managed to style herself as the “mother of the nation”. Her nickname in Germany is Mutti, or “Mummy”.

“The choice for most female politicians is still either mother or sex bomb, angel or whore, so mother it is. Will it ever change? I don’t know. We’re still a long way from people in the public eye being able to define their own roles