Is there gender equality in your business?

From where I sit in the diamond and jewellery industry, I have seen very real and positive changes that have occurred in workplace gender equality…

From where I sit in the diamond and jewellery industry, I have seen very real and positive changes that have occurred in workplace gender equality in Australia. Having said that, I feel there is a big, unacknowledged discrepancy between the diamond industry and the jewellery industry.

There is no doubt that the diamond industry is predominantly male dominated, and there are obviously many reasons for that. The tradition of the older generation bringing in their sons in the business while hoping their daughters get married and focus on the family is foremost amongst these. Sadly, we don’t even have the statistics to better understand the gender inequality problem in our industry. Nor do we have the information to shed greater light on the treatment on LGBTQ identities and people of colour in our industry. Let me preface this discussion with an acknowledgement. I am aware that I write this article from a privileged position – my gender, my colour and my sexual identity have provided me with many opportunities and choices that are frequently denied to other people. This privilege colours my experience and though I endeavour daily to become more aware and more understanding, like any mortal, I will slip-up. We’re all here to learn.

Gender equality in the diamond trade

When we consider India, where 90 percent of all diamonds are cut and polished, and a place where I have done business many times, I cannot recall ever being approached by a woman to buy diamonds or having had a woman sit in front of me to show me diamonds. Yes, there are many women who work in factories with polishing, but few are given the opportunity to sell or hold senior management positions.

But let us be honest with ourselves. Is it that much different in Antwerp or Israel? Why is this the case? We don’t have enough time to answer that question. The reasons are complex and varied. Whatever the ways of the past, it’s time for us to turn and look to the future.

In the last 10 years, we have seen an explosion of talented young women who, after their trade experience in design, gemmology, selling jewellery retail, and or crafting jewellery on the bench, have taken the leap of faith to set up their own jewellery businesses. These women are achieving tremendous success.

They know that they don’t have to wait for a man to give them an opportunity, they can create their own, and have gone on to do so. If you are a male colleague reading this and you feel uncomfortable or irritated, that’s okay. I also feel uncomfortable. I look back on my life and business and acknowledge that we have all grown up in societies which, by today’s standards, need to improve. Nobody blames you for the past, but they do look to see what you do now and in the future.

The difficult questions

I’d like to pose two questions. The first is directed to the owner and the second is directed to the employee.

To the employer,

Are you treating the men and women in your business equally? I do not want you to answer this straightaway. I want to you to be honest with yourself and ask if you have even considered this question before? I haven’t. I’ll be honest: before now I had never actually posed this question to myself.

To the employee,

Do you think your boss, both owner and or manager (or both), treat men and women equally in the business? Do you believe they would hear if you felt there was gender inequality? I believe I am gender-blind when it comes to the workplace – or at least I like to think I am. My management team is made up of two women and two men and we employ 20 percent men and 80 percent women. Up until six years ago, my business partner (who was active in the business) was a woman. My mother worked with my father in the business side by side, and although my father seemed to make the decisions, in hindsight, I realise that was just my mum tactfully playing to his ego.

The research in this space internationally shows quite a big gap between what owners of businesses think is important and what their employees consider important, particularly for women. In some of the surveys conducted, only 2 percent of owners said they ever received a complaint about the differences in salaries, but the feedback was in fact that women didn’t complain because they were concerned by the negative response or repercussions that may result from raising the issue.

Only 5 percent of owners said they received complaints about sexual harassment and yet 23 percent of employees said that they have suffered sexual harassment in the workplace.

That means that two thirds of people never report it. Sadly, sometimes the business owner is the worst offender. One of the problems that small and medium businesses suffer from is that, although in our industry we are keen and appreciate the importance of everyone’s input, we don’t ask the hard questions because we are scared of what the answers may be. You know, the ageold adage of opening a Pandora’s box…

What we all want

I know I like to think that I am aware and cognisant of what women in my business want in terms of gender equality, but I am guilty of not even asking. That’s something I intend to change. How much stronger we would all be if we
were brave enough to open that door and listen to what the people around us have to say? In many cases, these are people who we spend more time with than we do our own family.

Do you pay the men in your business more than women who are doing a similar job? It is technically illegal, by the way. Do the women in your employ find themselves in casual or part-time positions at a higher rate than the men? Do you offer the same training opportunities to women employees? Or are you fearful that if they are younger they will get married and have children and your investment will be lost?

These are legitimate concerns, and there is no one answer fits all, but at the very least, we should be talking about these issues and exploring the options. I know in our business we look to accommodate young mothers with start times or flexible days, but only now it occurs to me that I might not be quite so ready to offer young fathers the same conditions. Workplace equality is not simply about making things better for women – it’s about making work fair for everyone. No matter the gender, colour or orientation of your employee, we should always be thinking about what the next five years could look like for them, and us, in working together into the future.

Why aren’t you thinking about how to future-proof your business and hold onto your trusted employees no matter what happens to them in life? Health accidents, family issues, and any number of things can happen out of the blue. If you assume that everyone will have to go to part time at stage or other, then you can never be caught off guard.

Rising above the trivialities

I do sometimes think that the media likes to sensationalise things and make a modern approach to gender equality look like it is getting out of hand. ‘Political correctness gone mad,’ they scream, to the point where you feel you have to think twice about whether to complement a woman in the workplace on a new dress she is wearing lest it be construed as harassment.

But the vast majority of people around me are decent people who understand that intention and context matters. They know where the boundaries lie and are patient and understanding when someone screws up. Avoiding aiming for gender equality because of this sensationalised version of the ‘gender war’ is no excuse for asking the tough questions and making changes that will improve equality for everyone in the workplace and benefit your business. The diamond jewellery industry is fundamentally targeting women, so who knows better about what women want, than women? This might explain the tremendous success that female jewellery entrepreneurs are having.

But don’t just take it from me. Talk to the people in your workplace. I challenge you all to at least contemplate some of these points I brought up and look to see how you too can create a better, safer and less biased workplace. Sit with the difficult questions and challenge the way you’ve thought about things in the past.