Woolf recognised that women needed certain commodities if they wanted to become a writer. The lack of a “room” was but one of many barriers stopping women from following their passions, even if, technically, they were allowed to do it. It symbolised privacy, leisure time away from childcare and household chores, and a society that gave women the space and encouragement to write. In a way, this is exactly what equity considers.
International Women’s Day says that “equal opportunities are no longer enough”, and pushes for the inclusivity that equity will achieve. Equity delves deeper into people’s circumstances, and understands that the blanket statement of “everyone can apply to this job” simply is not enough. Woolf once said that “it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet”. In this day and age, our puzzle is why a 2022 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Company, looking at 40,000 employees from 333 companies, revealed that only one in four top management level leaders are women, and only one in 20 are women of colour. And it seems that our answer is the same as Woolf's - that despite capabilities, the circumstances women find themselves in can impact their ability to make full use of their opportunities. A woman may be allowed to apply to the job, but does she have the “room” that will allow her to thrive and progress in her role?
Where does gender inequity begin?
In 2020, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “Gender Equity Starts in the Home”, noting that whilst mothers and fathers work full time, often the mother bears the additional responsibility of being the primary caregiver for their children. So allowing women into the workforce may be a case of equality, but without sharing the workload at home, or allowing for flexible working, equity has yet to be fully embraced. Speaking to a 54 year old woman, she stated that “women can never be fully equal if there’s not an equal split in the home life.”
Now, you might be wondering why it’s so important to define and embrace equity. After all, isn’t society growing, and understanding the harmful consequences of set gender roles?
Firstly, we are experiencing a truly monumental shift in attitudes, with the rise of TikTokers like Andrew Tate, who receives over 11.6 billion views whilst preaching that women belong in the home. If a woman chooses to be a housewife, then more power to her, but when such ideals are enforced, both equality and equity takes several steps backwards. The 54-yea- old-woman of colour spoke on how she felt “unable to fully focus on studying and work due to cultural expectations that dictated my role to be managing the household and childcare”. She also said, “as a mother, and a woman of colour, you’re held back from progressing faster,” whether this be from the expectations of motherhood, the guilt put on mothers who prioritise their careers (which is not seen in the same way with fathers), or reaching the “glass ceiling.”
Secondly, equity isn’t simply about gender stereotypes in the home. Gender equity extends to the opportunities women are given at work, and taking an intersectional approach, the challenges faced by women of colour, or women with disabilities or neurodivergencies.
Barriers in the Workplace
Woolf wrote that she was not allowed on the “grass plot” where men resided, but was designated to the “gravel”. Of course, in 2023, we can now say that for the most part, women are allowed on the grass plot. I say “for the most part”, because there are still places which restrict women from entering certain spaces in the first place, such as the 2022 Taliban ban on Afghan women working in NGO’s, or the ongoing Chinese ban on women entering the profitable industry of mining. Women are allowed in previously male-dominated spaces, but are they given the right tools to navigate it? Most women might walk on the grass plot now, but can we stay there, and thrive there?
A 22-year-old medical student recounted her experiences in male-dominated spaces, which, though she had access to, were spaces in which “exclusionary conversations and male-centered group mentality” prevailed. Women still face the problem of the gender pay gap, being stereotyped as lacking “leadership qualities”, and being given “office housework” tasks such as party planning, which come with no recognition or opportunities of consideration for promotions. A 2022 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Company revealed that being women of colour being subject to “microaggressions”, women being “mistaken for someone more junior”, and women with disabilities having “their competence challenged”, are all key players in the percentage of men to women in leadership positions is so disproportionate.
Often this comes down to the image society holds of women. Woolf was all too aware of how women were deemed to be “inferior” in many arenas, such as politics or science. She argued that a woman interested in science “should have had a microscope put in her hand,” touching on a crucial point - often women are driven towards traditional roles, and driven away from certain careers. One woman of colour spoken to noted how after marriage, she was asked “why are you studying any further? You have a job and you’re married now.” It speaks to a prevalent, and often culturally informed, view that whilst women are allowed into the workplace, and are capable of it, there is no need for them to progress in that arena in the same way that men do.
How to Embrace Equity?
Virginia Woolf argues that in order for women to have “intellectual freedom,” and be able to become writers, they need two key things: “money and a room of one’s own.” From this, we can extrapolate that for women to have gender equity, and be able to make full use of opportunities, they need two key things: equitable pay and the space to progress. Companies must strive to close the gender pay gap, and consider their uses of maternity pay and flexible working for parents. Society as a whole must see women as beings capable of succeeding in all kinds of careers, and must allow them the space to progress without applying stereotypes and barriers upon them.