Emma Watson, Gender Equality and the Apprentice: you’re fired, unless you wear plenty of makeup, a short skirt…

Dr Mark Butler

Discrimination- misconceived views

The fight for equality between on gender grounds has been one that has been ongoing for some time (the EU and the United Nations playing key roles), but there is clearly a lot that still needs to be done. The gender pay gap is clear evidence of this; female workers in the UK currently earning on average 19% less than their male counterparts. Although this is considered an ‘improvement’ from the historical context, this serves to highlight that we are still some way off achieving equality. This is exacerbated when one considers that workers in atypical and marginal employment relationships, for example part time workers, earn over 1/3 less per hour than their full time counterparts (according to the Office of National Statistics in 2012), and that many of these positions are filled by female workers. However, having recently watched over the HeForShe speech given by Emma Watson, and having endured the new bunch of “business leaders” on the Apprentice, it did get me thinking about gender equality in business, and this blog encapsulates those musings.


The principle cause of discrimination is that of negative stereotyping, which then manifests itself through less favourable treatment. A woman will be an unreliable worker as she will take time off from the workplace to have babies, or take time off work for family duties, women in management roles are bossy rather than assertive, or that an attractive female candidate was only appointed based on their looks or because they had slept with the boss all appear to be common misconceptions, which serve to hinder the progression of females in business contexts.

 Some Responses to Gender Inequality

There have been progressive initiatives aimed principally at addressing historic discrimination against females. Most notably the European Parliament has campaigned for the introduction of European legislation that would require companies to have gender balanced boards, with a minimum proportion being female. This is in response to the comparatively limited number of females that reach board-level. In the same vein, the UK applied an exemption in their discrimination legislation, currently s.104 Equality Act 2010, which enables political parties to nominate all female candidates, again accepting that politics is an area where females have struggled to progress in what has traditionally been a male dominated career. The Council of Europe has also been busy, introducing a Gender Equality Strategy 2014-2017, which has five strategic objectives:

  • Combating gender stereotypes and sexism
  • Preventing and combating violence against women
  • Guaranteeing Equal Access of Women to Justice
  • Achieving balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making
  • Achieving Gender Mainstreaming in all policies and measures

This certainly has potential, though only time will tell of what impact this initiative will have.

Building on the gender equality issue is the current UN campaign, HeForShe, with Emma Watson acting as ambassador. In launching the campaign Ms Watson gave a speech recognising a number of key issues. One of my few disappointments with the event was not the content of the speech itself (although the focus appears to be on female inequality rather than gender inequality), but the editing. One of the highlighted problems with the fight against gender inequality was that it was often viewed as a feminist battle, with men not invited to join in (Hilary Clinton’s 1997 Beijing speech was cited, the audience for which was less than 30% men). It was then expressed that this campaign would include men to fight the inequality, who were then extended a “formal invitation” to be involved; however, despite this ambition (although it appears odd that a desire for equality needs an invitation to one of the stakeholders to be involved), on the four occasions that the camera panned around the audience one was left with the feeling that men again had not been invited as in line with the group presented to by Clinton, the audience appeared primarily female. Unfortunately, despite the script suggesting a gender partnership of sorts, it did not appear to be reflected by the attendees.

The Apprentice

However, despite progress clearly being made, problems still appear to exist in the business world, with the recent series of the Apprentice offering an interesting microcosm of these problems.

The gender distinction is always evident on the Apprentice from the word go, with Lord Sugar commencing every series thus far by using gender as the distinguishing factor to form teams. Although this is probably viewed by Lord Sugar as a simple means of forming two competing teams, it does imply that men and women are different beasts in the world of business and should be kept separate from one another. It is difficult to imagine that selecting teams solely on gender grounds would ever be acceptable in the modern business world, and in fact would likely lead to all sorts of complaints and claims. To take this idea further, would it actually have been any different had the groups been split up based on other protected characteristics, such as race or sexual orientation; this would still have seen two groups being formed based on a characteristic that ought not to be used as a criterion for drawing distinctions, as none of these, as with gender, relate to business acumen.

However, forming teams based on gender is probably one of the weakest examples that epitomise the gender divide in business. One of the most explicit manifestations of an existing problem was the view offered by Sarah, who was the Project Manager (PM) for the female team in the first episode. Her suggestion that the female team needed “…to cop loads of make-up, lipstick, high-heels, short skirts” to succeed suggests that she feels that as a woman her best way of succeeding is by sexualising her looks for male benefit; there is an additional stereotyping element surrounding this view, there is an assumption that the sales managers of the companies being pitched to would be male.  Although her team disagreed with Sarah’s suggestion, and rightly so, the fact that the suggestion was put out there on a prime time TV programme, with undoubtedly millions of young women (and men that may hold these views too) watching, meant that the damage was already done. This will have reinforced such stereotyping in a number of viewers. One of the more disappointing aspects of this was the lack of reprimand when the candidates’ performances were analysed in their first boardroom encounter.

There are other examples throughout the show thus far that implicitly point towards the masculine nature of the business world. Both Alan Sugar (during episode 1) and the PM for the men’s team, Scott, during episode 2, were guilty of using the male genitalia to express their point. Sugar’s outburst of “arty farty, yuppie Shoreditch bollocks”,  when questioning why the team wasted time travelling to a particular organic store for hot dog ingredients, is not as significant as Scott’s use of “I put my balls on the line” on numerous occasions when discussing his decision to stand as PM. Although it is unlikely to have been explicitly intended, this could be seen to be equating a Project Manager with a man, given that females lack such appendages! Not only does this reflect the stereotype that bosses and managers are generally male, but it also reflects what appears to be the case in practice, given the need to introduce positive action for females on boards (intimated above).

 An international issue…

Interestingly, whilst on the issue of gender discrimination, and stereotyping, the Australian game show Family feud caused a big stir recently by asking the question: “name something people think is a woman’s job?” If one questions the existence of stereotyping in society as a whole then this show at least highlights that the participants of the survey still have ingrained within them certain gender stereotyping, with (dare I say) many of the jobs being predictable, with the most popular answers being cooking, cleaning, nursing, hairdressing, domestic duties, dishes, receptionist, washing clothes. Balancing this out the question requiring man’s jobs to be named likewise resulted in predictable answers, these being building, mowing the lawn, bins, mechanic, tradie, fixing things, carpentry and plumbing.


Although society has progressed somewhat from times where requirements of being young, slim and attractive to be employed as a stewardess (as the businessmen taking the flight would expect this), and the use of high profile empowered successful women like Emma Watson can only help with progressing society further, one can’t help but think that there are still underlying problems that need to be addressed; negative stereotyping is still alive and well. Perhaps the time has come for a more progressive approach to discrimination being adopted through the pursuit of substantive equality, which would target the stereotyping that is the root cause of the discrimination, rather than papering over the cracks with formal equality which seems incapable of altering unjustifiable preconceptions. Unfortunately, I say as a fan of the programme, the first two episodes of the Apprentice have served to highlight a number of gendered issues that still exist in the business world, and society as a whole, that act to impede gender equality. I am not sure if this makes me, in the words of Emma Watson, an “inadvertent feminist”, since my work (although not reflected in this piece) considers inequality on a wider basis, it is clearly the case that in terms of gender equality more needs to be done.

Mark Butler (@m_butler1) is a Lecturer in Law at Lancaster University Law School, a fully qualified non-practising barrister, and the co-author of European Employment Laws.  His research interests are centred on UK employment law and EU Labour law, with a particular emphasis on employee rights.  He is currently conducting research in the area of discrimination, viewing the protections afforded to workers through comparative analysis.

You can find out more about Mark’s research at http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/law/profiles/mark-butler


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