1st March 2021

Women at work: we’ve come a long way, but not nearly long enough

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With International Women’s Day 2021 on March 8, our Chief Executive Sandi Wassmer reflects on how the working environment has changed for women throughout her career.

"When I first started thinking about writing this blog, and whether or not I had faced any type of barriers or discrimination because I’m a woman, I initially drew a bit of a blank. I didn’t recall any overt or direct discrimination or specific ill treatment, until I started thinking about the workplace cultures and environments that I endured in my earlier career.

Back in the 1990s, when I worked in film production and subsequently broadcasting, although there were many women working in the industry, looking back, what was at that time the norm was a pretty treacherous environment for women—sexism, misogyny and sexual harassment were, shockingly, not only tolerated, but accepted.

As an ambitious, career minded woman, you really had two choices—use sex to get to the top, yes, this was still the era of the casting couch, or you put your shoulder pads on and fought your way to the top, crushing anyone beneath you with your best pair of Manolo Blahniks.

I attempted to go down the latter path, which caused me considerable inner conflict and unhappiness. I tried to be as nice as I could, but any femininity or softness were seen as weakness. In fact, as I write, feelings of hurt, sadness and shame are arising in me. It seems that I had simply put this in the, “Well, that’s the way it was back then“ box and closed its lid firmly. And, although revisiting this now is thoroughly unpleasant, it’s also making me realise how hostile the environment was for women back then, and how social, cultural and environmental norms played a role in what we deemed acceptable or unacceptable.

I’ve had the good fortune to come from a family of women who pushed the boundaries of these norms. My mother did her PhD in her 40s and went on to have a hugely successful career as a professor, academic writer and human rights activist, and her cousin was one of the first female comedy writers on US television, working with the likes of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, way back in the early 1950s. So, I grew up believing that being a woman wasn’t going to stop me from being successful, and that dogged determination has certainly kept me in good stead, but it shouldn’t have had to be that way.

For the film and television industry, I can only hope that the #MeToo movement has put paid to the sort of environment I worked in, but still, in 2021, women are far from equal in the workplace. Sure, there are female Chief Executives and other senior leaders like me out there, but there certainly aren’t enough of us.

Even so, my bigger concern right now is the way that women have been marginalised throughout the pandemic. Early research is showing that women have been the hardest hit, not only in terms of trying to balance work and life commitments, but also with respect to both furlough and redundancy. As we come out of the pandemic, this period of time has clearly demonstrated that a more flexible way of working, that allows for better integration of our working lives, our family lives, our social lives and our personal lives is not only possible, but is better for us all.

Here, at enei, we are most certainly not going to go back to the way things were before; I’m not saying that we have all the answers about what the hybrid workplaces of the future are going to look like, but we are going to have a play with making our organisation even more agile, flexible and inclusive, and my hope is that others will take their learnings into the future, so that when I look back on life post pandemic, I can happily reminisce about an increasingly level playing field for all gender identities at work."

- Sandi Wassmer, CEO, Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion