Nominal diversity is not the same as genuine inclusion, argues Guilty Feminist Deborah Frances-White, urging women to be more verbal and visible.
The issue of gender equality has become hugely emotive in recent years, with sexual harassment scandals, reports of woeful gender pay gaps and unequal practices in business, society and politics. And when it comes to female representation in business, progress is stalling. The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, published in late 2017, calculates that at the current rate of change, it will take 217 years to close the global economic gap between the genders — 99 years longer than predicted in 2015.
For Deborah Frances-White, comedian and pioneer of comedy podcast The Guilty Feminist, when you consider how recently women were “allowed” into business, we’ve come a long way in a short time. “Women have only really been in
business for the past 100 years; society’s been around for 10,000 years – so we’ve not had that long to catch up,” she explains.
However, with industry and organisations still predominantly designed by men, and structured patriarchally, “making space” for minority groups in a white, middleclass society is a cornerstone of Frances-White’s message.
Rather than expecting women to “step up”, the establishment must recognise their value. “Saying ‘what responsibility do women have to solve sexism?’ is like saying ‘what responsibility do black people have to solve racism?’,” she quips.
She adds that while some men have done amazing work, speaking up and making space for women in the workplace, most of it has been done by women themselves, “breaking in and demonstrating how talented and capable they are”.
Originally from Australia, Frances-White came to the UK in 1997 to study at Oxford University and never went home. “I always wanted to live in London,” she reveals.
She made her name on the comedy scene at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, moving into stand up, and her BBC Radio 4 series Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice was first broadcast in spring 2015, featuring stories about her adoption, visa issues around her marriage and her quest to find her biological family. It won The Writers’ Guild Award for Best Radio Comedy.
In 2015, Frances-White launched her weekly Guilty Feminist podcast, with guests discussing the noble goals of feminists, while confessing the insecurities, hypocrisies and fears that undermine their lofty principles.
“Women are constantly berating themselves; I’m not a good enough mum, friend, lover,” explains Frances-White. “I wanted to create a place where we could laugh about those things and let them go – carrying shame isn’t helpful. I wanted [the podcast] to be a place to push past the guilt and to strengthen ourselves.”
The Guilty Feminist tasks listeners and guests to challenge themselves and gain new perspectives. “I’ve challenged myself to walk down the street and not get out of anyone’s way,” says Frances-White. “Women always got out of the way, men didn’t until the last second – and if they did, they looked put out.
“Men’s normal is ‘don’t get out of people’s way’. My normal is ‘get out of everyone’s way’. This one guy I encountered thought I was rude for not moving, because his life experience is ‘keep walking’.”
Her personal awakening from the podcast series was to her own privilege. “It’s opened my eyes to how much advantage white people have – I have – and how that’s not ok.”
Frances-White believes the real question business leaders need to ask is whether they have created a space that enables genuine inclusion. “We say ‘we have a woman, she has a lanyard and an email account… what else does she want?’ But if you only have one woman, it’s hard for her to belong. Men say having one woman on a panel is equality, but if they’re the only man, they’ll say, ‘it feels weird being in a minority.’ It’s like, ‘yep, that happens to women all the time, in conferences, meetings – it’s normal. That’s how people of colour feel in rooms full of white people’. It’s sometimes good for a straight white man to be in a minority.”
To enable genuine inclusion, new behaviours must be embedded in existing processes, she argues.
“Men have been trained to think their opinions are right; women to think they should check their work 12 times,” she notes.
“If women aren’t speaking up in meetings, work out why. Do men speak up first because they’ve been included for longer? Have a different person open your meetings each week; or a rule where if someone is interrupted, someone else will say, ‘oh I wanted to hear what Anna had to say’.”
Women “have to be the change we want to see in the world,” asserts Frances-White. “We cannot get anyone else to a party we’re not invited to, so we have to ensure we are central to the party and then start inviting other women. Women need to assume inclusion. Walk through doors as if you are central to proceedings, and take every opportunity you can.”
We are barraged by ideas and images of how women should be and it’s hard not to compare yourself to them, she admits, urging women to “de-programme” themselves from the media. However, she believes “women are being increasingly verbal and visible and the world’s taking notice. I hope women stop taking ‘no’ for an answer, start taking up more space in the world and demanding things across all areas of society,” she concludes.
To read our summary of Deborah's speech at this year's Future Talent Conference, click here. To watch the highlights of her presentation, click here.