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NSM Focus | Professor Yvonne Benschop on gender inequality: “Time to take the ideal employee off the pedestal”

Date of news: 22 February 2022

The ideal employee is always available for work, works long hours, never says no, is extremely flexible and not distracted by informal care, self-care or any other kind of care at all. If the ideal employee has children, no one takes any notice. Who fits into this description? Hardly anyone. So why is this archetype so dominant? Professor of Organisational Behaviour Yvonne Benschop explains.

Text: Jolanda van den Braak

Yvonne BenschopNo one ever sat down and designed the ideal
employee; the ideal employee is a socio-cultural construct. “Since the Industrial Revolution, the idea
has come about that the workplace and private
sphere are two separate worlds. Employees, particularly men, were expected to focus exclusively
on work, while women were in charge of running the private domain. Although the workplace is no longer the exclusive domain of men, the spirit of the ideal employee still haunts it. And so, in 2022, gender inequality is still prevalent.”

Peter, Director

How come the number of female directors is equal to the number of directors called Peter? Why do many women earn less than men in the same job? Why are women’s qualities often not recognised and their boundaries often crossed? “Every organisation has to consider the following question: how do our organisational structure, culture and work processes lead to gender inequality? And what will it take to change this? We are talking about major change. If there were bite-size solutions, we would not be having this conversation.”

Ongoing benefits

The willingness to see and appreciate women’s qualities is necessary for reducing gender inequality. “Most part-time jobs are still held by women. This is not because all these women prioritise being at home with their children. Traditional gender roles play an important role here. Men and women are constantly presented with all kinds of prejudices: we think one thing is masculine while the other is feminine. Anyone who ventures beyond the boundaries of social norms encounters resistance sooner or later. In a nutshell, this applies to women in the workplace and men reducing their working hours to spend more time with their children. The pursuit of the ‘ideal’ is also a threat to men’s positions.”

The Voice

“Research into gender inequality, surely that is no longer necessary.” And: “Women choose not to go for top positions themselves.” Benschop often hears these statements. “Some people don’t see it, others are tired of talking about it. This is precisely why we must continue to define the problem.” She contributes to this through research and teaching. “I reach large groups of students who also draw attention to the topic. Others make television programmes or write about it in magazines.”
This brings us to the sexual transgressions that recently came to light on The Voice of Holland, after which confessions followed from Ajax, de Telegraaf and quite a few other organisations. “Gender inequality also manifests itself as sexual misconduct in the workplace. It happens everywhere, and it is happening as we speak, without anyone noticing.”

The most difficult research

Commissioned by the National Network of Women Professors, Benschop, together with Marijke Naezer and Marieke van den Brink conducted research into transgressive behaviour in the academic world in 2019. “It is the most difficult research I have ever done. I am shocked at what people can do to each other in the workplace. As well as what women in particular have to endure, and how often they are not taken seriously or are pushed aside: ‘What has happened is very unfortunate, but this is our star researcher, so we are not going to take this matter further.’ If you do not have the hierarchy backing you up, you have to stand firm to bring up transgressive behaviour. It is easier if several people speak up at once, like The Voice contestants did. I also hope that Mariëtte Hamer will be able to change how these matters are approached in her position as government commissioner against sexual misconduct.”

Off the pedestal

As long as we are blind to gender inequality, nothing will change. “It is time to take the ideal employee off the pedestal, be more respectful of women and recognise and acknowledge their qualities. And yes, there is also fun, desirable sexual tension in the workplace, but there is a minefield of norms that we have to be clear about first: what is acceptable, what is not?
This is not easy, but a matter of logical thinking. After all, practice most certainly does not make perfect in a minefield.”