Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England. This week: the 'male default'

We have previously established that, readers, we are all feminists. And it is specifically in that frame of mind that I want you to read this blog about the 'male default' as detailed brilliantly in Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. I make the point explicitly as, when reading out facts and statistics meticulously researched in the book, my husband kept saying 'well I don’t really think that is right' and 'that’s pushing it a bit'. 


We have probably all heard some headlines from this book- that having equal sized public toilet areas for men and women disadvantage women as they take longer to go to the toilet AND don’t have the benefit of urinals, that heart attacks are less effectively diagnosed in women because the symptoms of a female heart attack are different and less well known, and that crash test dummies are male. However, I want to focus on the 'male default' as it affects women in a workplace like mine. I mean, I’m going to try but obviously I haven’t been able to finish the book as I get very little time to read once I’m done with all my paid and unpaid work in the office and at home.

It starts before we get the job. The male default in job adverts - hopefully less explicit these days so rather than referring to the skills 'he' should have will still detail typically male qualities or qualities that males see in themselves- has been shown to stop women applying. The 'myth of meritocracy' has been shown to make the problem worse. That is, if a firm has a policy of only the best person getting the job, they are actually more likely to have males apply and get the jobs. And this is not, I repeat, not because men are best for the job. In order to get the best PERSON for the job, particularly in senior positions, women need to be recommended or encouraged to apply. Where such a policy is in place, women are more likely to get the jobs and be better at performing the role. In other words, in order for the best person to get the job, women need to be pushed forward in the first place.

Of course, it would be better if women pushed themselves forward, but there are many reasons why they don’t. In terms of ambition and leadership skills, we are centuries behind men. Even just one generation ago, my mum, as neither the eldest daughter nor the son of her parents, was not encouraged to have a career. My mother in law is always telling me that the first question she and her friends would be asked at job interviews was 'when are you getting married' so the employer could work out when they would be likely to quit their jobs.

Ambition and leadership skills are not seen as positive, feminine traits. Women are likely to be less well liked for showing these traits than men. If they get an interview (and I know one local firm who simply won’t interview young women fee earners for fear of maternity leave) and heaven forbid get the job, women, particularly mothers, are equally expected to do a lot more unpaid life admin/parenting/caring than men, as well as having their career paths adversely affected for doing so. Women have joined the workforce but have kept most of the unpaid work too.

Men, on the other hand, are more likely to both get promotions after having children (so that they can provide for their family, bless them) and to be looked on kindly for taking on any caring responsibilities. My husband’s team at work literally swoon if he has to leave early for parents’ evening or work at home to look after a sick child whereas I get an eye roll.

According to the Office for National Statistics, men have five hours more leisure time a week than women. And men’s leisure time is just that, whilst women’s is more likely to be combined with other tasks. In my case PTA, lunch with my team for morale boosting purposes, baking for the school or the kids, looking after the dog and gardening.

Working over 48 hours a week has been proved to have significant physical and mental health consequences. Caroline Criado Perez says that women are most likely to work more hours than this when you include their unpaid work.

Whilst careers such as computer programming started as being female-dominated and became more esteemed and better paid when men took over, careers such as those of pharmacists have become less esteemed and less well paid when more women have joined. Whilst there are obviously other factors at play, is this what we are seeing now with publicly funded legal work? What about conveyancing?

Various work policies are - unconsciously, of course - designed for men and cause a problem for women. Tax-free pension contributions, for example, and the reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses for another. Caroline Criado Perez uses the example of someone working late and getting take away pizza (which you may be able to claim for) as opposed to someone working late and spending the same amount on a babysitter (which I have never heard someone try to claim for). It is assumed that looking after children is not valuable work, and also that there is a wife at home to look after them for free.

When I went back to work after having kids I read some books about how to manage 'having it all' and the one point that has stuck in my mind ever since was that I should be cleaning the shower whlist I am having a shower. Totally reasonable. And then at work I am statistically more likely to end up making my own appointments, making the tea and doing my own copying than a man whilst dealing with texts from my mother in law that say things like 'you are low on milk'. I am only statistically more likely to do these admin tasks because on the whole I try not to, as I have a chargeable hours target, but I am not liked for it.

Women are different from men, physically, and unlike, say, wheelchair users (and I may be repeating myself here) we make up 50% of the population. We are not the other sex, or the alternate sex. We are half the people. In my firm, we are much more than half the people. So just a word, while I am on a roll, on menstruation. Fifty per cent of the population bleed for five days every month for a very large part of their working lives. We are expected from the age of about 11 to get on with it, but sometimes it is hard. Twice in the last couple of months I have bled so heavily and suddenly that blood has leaked through my clothes. This has been coupled with excruciating period pains. On one occasion I had to take a detour to my house before a home visit to change clothes. Apart from anything else that was one chargeable hour of my life I won’t get back. But I suppose the point I’m making is I didn’t tell anyone at work and I am quite likely the first person you, reader, have ever heard talking about periods in this sort of context. This is despite women having much worse problems than me, including having miscarriages, at work, with very little ever being said or any concessions being made. Has your firm got a miscarriage policy? A menstruation policy? A menopause policy?

Some of these challenges can be overcome, eventually, if we all work towards it. This next one in particular. Caroline Criado Perez refers to a 'brilliance bias', by which she means the unconscious bias most of us have when asked to imagine someone 'brilliant'. Most will imagine a man. If, like me, you have a child that has just started school this is really important. Five-year-old children think that both boys and girls can be 'really really smart'. By the time they turn six, little girls start doubting their own abilities. Recently at parents’ evening I was 'that mum' who spoke to the headteacher about the traditional language I had noticed being used around the school. I told him about the National Literacy Trust’s resources for teachers to help them beat gender stereotyping through the language they use. If, like me, you will have a girl in Year One later this year, let’s say something, do something, to ensure they go into Year Two next year still full of their own importance and absolutely smashing the living daylights out of it.

If you still aren’t convinced the 'male default' is as alive and well - women being treated as something a bit different, a minority - I have one final question. In surveys, who do you think male gamers feel they can relate to more - playing a woman character (you know, what with the gamers in question presumably having mothers, sisters, girlfriends at a push) or a blue hedgehog?