Sex(ism) and the City: why we all need to stand up for an equal future

The recent scandal at Uber has highlighted once again the need for workplace reform. On the eve of International Women’s Day 2017, Azimo‘s Dora Ziambra explains why everyone – both men and women – needs to start with the basics to help stamp out sexism in all its forms.

It hasn’t been an uber-positive start to 2017 for Uber boss Travis Kalanick. His firm stands accused by former software engineer Susan Fowler of rampant sexism after her scathing blog post detailed a litany of alleged sexual harassment during her time there.

Unsurprisingly, Kalanick’s response via Twitter was swift and severely worded: “There can be no place for this kind of behaviour at Uber — and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.” Strong words indeed, but not enough to stem the tide of bad press – #DeleteUber is back trending and so is the thorny topic of sexism in the Silicon Valley workplace.

In 2016, the Elephant in the Valley survey found that 60% of women working in Silicon Valley experience unwanted sexual advances; 75% were asked about their family lives, marital status and children in interviews; and 52% of those who took maternity leave shortened it because they thought it would negatively impact their career.

Sadly, these figures won’t come as a shock to many. The male-dominated tech and finance industries have long been accused of gender bias, and I have first-hand experience of workplace sexism in full swing. The biggest challenge I’ve faced during my career was working on a trading floor, where the pressure to be ‘one of the guys’ was overwhelming at times.

Infographic: Elephant in the Valley

More than 80% of primary school teachers are female, but head on to a bank trading floor and the picture will be very different. Azimo employs 38% female staff, which is way above the industry average, but the UK tech sector as a whole employs just 17%.

But the problems start way before the workplace and gender stereotyping still plays too large a part in career choices. At school, STEM subjects just aren’t being sold to girls as sexy choices. In 2015, of 5,383 A-Level Computing students in the UK, just 456 were girls.

I never thought of “doing a Susan Fowler” during my trading floor days. But reading about her experience today makes me more determined than ever to fight for an end to gender inequality and unconscious bias in the workplace – and here’s what I believe we can do about it. My argument is that we – both men and women – need to start by making some basic changes in behaviour to help stamp out sexism in all its forms, and one way that everyone can make a difference is by flagging up instances of sexism at the Everyday Sexism Project.

President Trump’s shocking dismissal of his lewd comments about groping women as nothing more than “locker room talk” has helped to bring the problem firmly back into the spotlight. But let’s be honest, the spectre of sexism has always been there in the workplace – whether it’s a hand on the knee or a suggestive remark. And we – women in business – have often failed to do a great job of pointing it out.

As I mentioned earlier, on this last point I’m guilty as charged. I was too tolerant of such incidents earlier on in my career for fear of not progressing up the “ladder”, and now I realise that I should have stood up and pushed back in a constructive way (see below for my thoughts on how we can actually do that).

I’m not just talking about the kind of blatant sexual harassment suffered by Susan Fowler. I’m also talking about more nuanced cases such as Ellen Pao, who resigned as interim CEO of Reddit after being subjected to a torrent of mainly anonymous abuse by the site’s members.

Photo: Ellen Pao (flickr)

This is not something that is going to change overnight, but the incremental changes in behaviour that shape a company’s culture can be a great start to an equal future. Women and men should be treated the same in terms of salary, benefits, opportunities to develop and time off. Businesses need to hire more women in senior and junior positions, which will in turn create more gender trust. Finally, to change opinion where it really matters, we need to raise boys and girls to respect gender equality.

The hashtag for International Women’s Day on 8th March is #BeBoldForChange and I, for one, will be retweeting it from the rooftops. Compared to my grandmother and even my mother, I’ve been able to make far more progressive life choices. But, as these two high-profile cases have shown, there’s still an awfully long way to go to achieve total equality.

Dora Ziambra, Head of Business Development, Azimo