Interview: Anonymous on Women’s Discrimination in Employment

Last week, I interviewed an intelligent young woman who wishes to participate anonymously. She studied European Law School and is currently pursuing two master degrees International Laws and State and Governance Law at Maastricht University. She has also been on exchange to England for a year. In her spare time, she likes to read, learn new languages, and spend time with family and friends, as far as possible in this exceptional time. She loves learning new things and that’s why she likes to watch informative podcasts.

Today we are going to talk about discrimination against women in the labour market. Why is this topic important to you?

A: Women’s discrimination in the labour market is a very important issue for me not only because I am a woman and will soon enter the labour market, but also because it is not yet sufficiently addressed and if it is discussed then it is dismissed as feminism. Women study and work just as hard as men. They should therefore be given as equal opportunities and equal treatment as men in the labour market. If we make women’s discrimination more discussable then only it can be solved.

What are the forms of women’s discrimination?

Gender pay gap

A: The main discrimination that I have learned about and is clear evidence of is the gender pay gap. This means that there is a difference in salary between a man and a woman for the same work. This is disturbing as it still happens, even in the so-called “progressive”, “emancipated” Western European countries, including the Netherlands. Gender discrimination is prohibited in several national conventions and also at the European level, but it still occurs underground because there is insufficient wage transparency. I read an article about Iceland being the first country where the existence of this pay gap is punishable and companies are fined heavily if it exists. I think this is a very good initiative and more countries should follow this example.

S: Critics claim that the way the gender pay gap is calculated is wrong. They say that women often work in low-paid sectors and part-time. This is the reason behind the gender pay gap. When can we speak of a gender pay gap?

A: Of course there is a general wage gap that has not much to do with discrimination, but with the woman’s own choices or forced choices. For example, a woman who chooses to work part-time so that she can look after the children, but there are also women who do not have access to the high-paid sectors.
I am talking about the pay gap between men and women who perform the same job at the same company or sector. This is a hidden problem and therefore it should be discussed. Women are generally paid less, but often the woman is not aware of this, because there is no wage transparency within the company. If you do not know what your male colleague earns then you cannot compare. As a result, a woman cannot bring up this matter to her manager.

It is not without reason that the principle of equal pay for equal work has been included in European law. There was a need for it and it was necessary to make it legally binding. Article 157 of the TFEU, Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, states that: “Each Member State shall ensure that the principle of equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value is applied”. This is an European law that establishes that men and women should earn equal wages for equal work. It must therefore be observed by all EU Member States, but this is not always applied in practice by all Member States.

There have been several cases at the Court of Justice of the European Union involving direct or indirect discrimination based on sex. An example of direct gender discrimination: you do the same job as a colleague, but you get less money because you are a woman. Direct discrimination is prohibited and can be contested legally.

In the case of indirect discrimination, a distinction is made by a rule that at first appears neutral. However, the working method of that rule leads to discrimination. An example of this is the inclusion in a pension plan that part-timers are not eligible for pension insurance. As these part-timers are generally more often women than men, this is an indirect form of discrimination. In the meantime, most pension regulations will have removed such a ban.

Another example, which I mentioned earlier, is from Iceland. If this pay gap was only present due to the difference in sector and part-time versus full-time, then it would not have been necessary to criminalize a difference in salary between men and women within a company. A difference is being made within the company itself and in my opinion this should be monitored and penalized.

Do you think openness about salaries should be normalized? In the Netherlands it is taboo to ask your colleague how much they earn. I asked a colleague once when I started working. I was 16 years old when I worked in a Chinese restaurant and I wanted to know how much I would earn later when I was her age, but she didn’t like it. This was a spare-time job for her and me, but I immediately learned that it is an inappropriate question to ask.

A: Yes, it is true that it is taboo. You can’t randomly ask: how much do you earn? If it is a taboo between people themselves, why doesn’t the company itself take the initiative to disclose the average wages? There must be pay transparency to overcome this problem. I also think that women should be more assertive. Women don’t negotiate as quickly as men, especially for the first job. This is also one of the reasons that there is a wage difference. Negotiations are more often done by men than women, because they do not dare or are not trained to do negotiations. I think that women should be encouraged to do this and that transparency should come from the company. In Iceland, where the gender pay gap is now a criminal offense, an external investigation in pay differences takes place, an independent person can judge whether there are any pay differences.

Do you think that there should be fixed salaries for men and women based on years of work experience? Instead of a salary indication and that you have to negotiate for that?

A: No, fixed salary will ensure that there are fewer promotion opportunities and is likely to affect the quality of the work and reduce the motivation to perform well. I believe that there should be pay transparency and that if there is a clear difference in salary between the employees doing the same work, then justified reasons should be stated by the company. Bargaining options must remain, but women must be more stimulated to negotiate and to be more assertive. Salary negotiation is not taught to men and women in the Netherlands. All kinds of skills are taught, but not how to get a job or how to negotiate. It should be a compulsory sub-subject or course in every study.

Women’s discrimination in top positions

A: The number of women studying at college or university level is significantly higher than the number of men, yet you will see fewer women in the top positions. Of course I understand that this is not just about discrimination and that women choose to stay at home or work part-time and take care of the children when they come into the picture. However, it is not that every woman wants to start a family as they approach their thirties. This is often assumed by the potential employers and they also assume that she will have children. They think that this will make her take a long-term leave and thus is not as “useful” for that company compared to a man. Moreover, the woman is also more often underestimated in terms of her skills in top positions. This is also a big problem and when you see how the number of women is increasing in top positions these days and how well they are doing them then these are certainly just assumptions.

For example, look at Finland, Iceland and New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand) has tackled the Corona problem greatly and the mortality rate there is unprecedentedly low. She did this through a strict lockdown and the closing of the land borders. Already on March 20, when there were only about 100 infections, the borders were closed and New Zealand went into lockdown. Ardern’s motto was ‘Go hard and go early’. During that lockdown, a major testing policy was set up. Among other things, this ensured that New Zealand was virus-free after just a few months. Thus, a woman lacks access to top positions because of negative thinking and assumptions while there are plenty of examples of women performing well.

S: Research has shown that men are more likely to be hired than women. This is mainly due to assumptions about women with regard to possible motherhood, but women who have children or are pregnant also experience discrimination. Employers prefer to hire men because they do not go on maternity leave and do not expect that they will work less once they have children. A study by the Institute of Human Rights shows that:

  • “43% of women who combine pregnancy and work experience discrimination
  • 1 in 10 women is explicitly rejected for a position because of pregnancy, motherhood or the desire to have children. 1 in 5 women suspect that they did not get a job for these reasons.
  • 44% of women with a temporary contract indicate that their contract has not been renewed, (partly) because of her pregnancy.
  • 1 in 10 women missed a promotion, salary increase or training due to pregnancy. ” (The Institute of Human Rights, 2016)

These are also forms of women’s discrimination in the labour market, so it is not only assumptions about women prior to being accepted/rejected that hinder women. Once they are employed, they also experience discrimination.

Women’s discrimination based on religion & ethnicity

A: An example of discrimination based on religion is, for example, Muslim women who express their faith by wearing a headscarf. They have a much more difficult time on the labor market compared to Muslim men, whose religion is often not visible visually. Most Muslim men do have a beard, but that has recently become a trend so there is no real difference between the Muslim and the non-Muslim man.

For women with a headscarf, hijab, niqab or any other form of clothing that shows that they are Islamic, it is a lot more difficult on the labour market. They are not hired, even if they have the required skills or once inside they are treated as inferior. Women’s discrimination in this area is mainly related to general Western assumptions about a headscarf and stereotyping associated with ignorance.

Have you experienced any of these forms yourself?

A: I have experienced gender discrimination based on descent. I applied twice to a foundation for the position of legal advisor. The first time I was rejected because I did not fit the profile. Later when she published a photo of the team I saw that they were all blonde girls. Of course I do not fit within the profile I thought to myself. The second time when I was interviewed, there was a different board and there was also a Moroccan girl among them. I was hired then and there was not much difference in my CV or grades compared to the year before.

I recently read an article in the Algemeen Dagblad where there was clearly a case of discrimination. It was about a girl named Halima who applied for a job opening as a customer service representative. She was then told that the vacancy was on hold, but then she decided to also apply under a somewhat more “Dutch” name, Tessa, and then she received the answer that she certainly had a chance for the job. Halima made the Whatsapp messages with this recruiter public on LinkedIn in which the discrimination by name was clearly visible. She has also set up her own recruitment agency with an anonymous application procedure. I find this a very good initiative.

S: The hardest part about discrimination is that it can’t be proven. I also know a story from my cousin who applied for a job in the HR department of a well-known clothing store. In the end, the manager decided not to hire her, because she indicated to those who had the conversation with my cousin that it should not get too “exotic”. My cousin only found out because the assistant was honest about the real reason behind the rejection.

What are the factors that cause discrimination to continue?

A: Assumptions about women by society (weak, a mother, not assertive, too sweet and neat), female image of the past, stereotyping, seeing all women as the same, family planning in their thirties, macho behaviour, underestimating what women can and women who are insecure themselves.

An example with regard to applying for jobs is that a large proportion of women will not apply for a job when they match nine out of ten required skills. She’ll think she’s missing one. Men think differently. If a man sees a job opening and sees that he has five of the eight skills required, he will apply for it. He thinks oh I have five of the eight and I learn the other three at work itself. So the problem and the discrimination is not just external, but internally there must also be a change in thinking.

S: This reminds me of a workshop that I attended at the Dutch career days in Utrecht last year. The presenter said that a difference in thinking between men and women is noticeable when they are little. When boys come back from a football game, a conversation in the car will go like this: “Did you see how I kicked the ball in the goal!”, “Did you see how I passed that ball to him”. With girls it goes like this “but did you see that I couldn’t do it” or “I didn’t do that right”. They talk a lot more about failure, doing something wrong or are modest about their achievements.

A: I recently watched a TED talk where the presenter talked about how women should be more accepting of failure. With women, the emphasis is on perfection, everything has to be right, neat and tidy, while boys are given more freedom to fail. With women, this freedom is somewhat less and that is due to the difference in upbringing.

What measures are being taken to combat discrimination against women?

A: The main measure that is being taken now is introducing temporary quota to get more women in top positions. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, also strives for women’s equality in the labour market. She is the first female president of the European Commission, who immediately brought female committee members via quota to the Commission.

Quotas are certainly effective. Look I understand and agree that people should be assigned certain positions based on their experience, skills and merits and not based on gender. However, these quotas are very necessary for now to open the door, to give women access to those functions. This will force society to grow and it will be easier for everyone to accept women in these positions in the long term.

S: I also think a change in the perception of women is essential. You may have quotas, but if the way of thinking does not change, you will run into the same problems when those quotas are abolished. A disadvantage of quotas is that people will say that someone has only been hired because she is a woman. Her qualities and knowledge are taken for granted and the underlying problem of stereotyping is not addressed. At the same time, I think quotas are necessary, because there is no voluntary change. In the long run, however, I am not a big fan of it.

What do you think is needed to ensure that women are no longer discriminated?

A: In recent years, there is more awareness for the discrimination that women face. Fortunately!

The general way of thinking must be changed in society. This can be done through education at home and schools for both men and women. Women must be supported and motivated. Also the idea that it’s not okay for women to fail. People should not automatically assume that every woman wants a family or that every woman will work part-time or is only be able to perform well in low positions.  

Women need more representation in the higher functions and luckily you are starting to see that very clearly. Most recent example of this is the Vice President of America, Kamala Harris. She is the first female vice president, the first vice president of American Indian and American African descent. She is a role model for many women worldwide especially for women of colour. She is also aware of her role as an example and mentioned this in her speech. She showed that if I can do it as a coloured woman, then you can do it too. I found that very powerful and I respect it. This is a good start. Role models like Kamala and Ursula, motivate women and also show the rest of society how capable women can be when they are given the opportunities to which they are entitled.

Men and women should be given equal opportunities to be treated equally in the labour market. An equal length of birth leave for the husband and wife will make the discrimination against women significantly less since whether you hire a man or woman, both, if they want to start a family, will take leave after a while.

Lastly, women cannot and should not fight against discrimination in the labour market alone. For real change, men’s thinking and support are as important as raising the matter of women’s discrimination by women. True equality can only be brought together.

S: I agree. I think that men often underestimate how much their support can mean for a woman in the workplace. If a male supervisor or a male colleague openly supports you, gives opportunities or reprimands colleagues on improper behaviour then you feel empowered as a woman. If, as a man, you correct a male colleague instead of laughing along at a sexist joke, it may be that the other person starts to reflect on whether it was an inappropriate comment. In this way you steer towards a change in way of thinking and hopefully eventually also in behaviour. Men often do not see women’s problems as their problem and therefore also not as their responsibility, while discrimination against women is a problem of society. It is not a problem of the ones who are affected. It belongs to all of us and everyone can make a difference.

Thank you for sharing your valuable insights!

Dear readers, share your thoughts on this topic! Have you experienced direct or indirect women’s discrimination? Are you in favour of quotas?

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