Earlier this year, Business in the Community launched Same But Different, a ground-breaking photographic project that celebrates and shines a light on the diversity of women in the workplace. Working with the photographer Leonora Saunders, the project uses imagery and narrative to challenge employer and media perceptions of working women and help them understand not only the challenges women encounter but also their needs, priorities and strengths.
Women are not one homogeneous group. Their experiences of work are influenced not just by their sex or gender, but by other aspects of their identity such as race, sexual orientation, disability, culture, religion, class background or health. Yet when we see imagery of ‘women in work’ used by the media or by employers, they are oddly samey. If it’s not a photo of a woman in her kitchen, on the phone, holding a baby and typing on her laptop (usually to illustrate a piece on ‘having it all’ or ‘work life balance’), it’s the downright odd fixation with shoes. Usually, the women in these photographs are white and often pictured in professional dress, such as suits and high heels.
These images are unrealistic and unrepresentative, yet the overwhelming focus on them in the media leads public discourse to generalise about women based on the perception of a few. This narrow focus limits understanding of women’s real experiences in work, and consequently means the barriers many women face are overlooked. To put it simply, they don’t tell women’s stories.
But why does it matter that we recognise that a white woman’s experience of exclusion is different from a black woman’s, or that the inequality faced by middle class women isn’t the same as that of a working class woman? Because in our efforts to redress the balance of power and influence between men and women, we rarely talk about the barriers to equality most women experience due to those differences.
While we cannot and should not speak for others, many women feel excluded from the debate about feminism and workplace equality in its current form. Predominantly white women’s networks may not be able to speak for Black or Asian women. Employment drops off a cliff for women over 40, with many struggling to find new jobs and others working past retirement age to top up smaller pensions, yet conversation around the gender pay gap rarely mentions age. Women at the lowest end of the labour market find it the most difficult to progress, yet it’s those few at the top of business who are celebrated with champagne receptions. As the journalist Natalie Bloomer writes: “the way the debate is currently conducted means it has more to offer the female executive than the woman who serves her lunch”.
Same But Different aims to bring the conversation into the 21st century by creating a platform for all women to tell their own story. The photographs and accompanying interviews we are compiling represent women whose voices are often unheard, but whose stories must be told to ensure that all women are part of the conversation about work and equality. Our sex and gender may be the same, but our identities, struggles and battles are different – and it’s time we all sat back and listened.
We will be hosting a public exhibition of images from the project at an exciting venue in central London for three weeks from February to March 2017, in celebration of International Women’s Day. We are also still looking for our last few volunteers for the project, specifically women working in manual jobs, women in part-time work, women on minimum or living wage, and women over the age of 55. If there is someone you could nominate for the project, please let us know!