Diversity & Inclusion

It’s not enough: why gender equality in business has some way to go

Lydia Watson

Have you ever had a conversation with someone about some aspect of identity-based discrimination or harrassment you’ve experienced, and been met with a level of scepticism?

It’s not a rare, or surprising experience. When over 66% of British men think that women now have equal opportunities, when 50% of UK men aged 16-24 think feminism has “gone too far” and limits their opportunities, then pushing gender equality even further becomes more difficult.

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There has been progress for women in the workplace…

Those beliefs may be, in part, down to the misconception that equality is a “zero sum game” – that progress for women and people of colour means setbacks for men and white people. And for women in particular, those steps forward have been made:

..But we’re not there yet

It’s encouraging, and should be celebrated, that we’re edging closer to equality. But it’s not good enough. Women are still much more likely to be in low paid jobs, or not employed at all, and are still drastically underrepresented in several industries and in leadership roles more generally. Let’s take a look at 3 key problem areas, and the reasons behind them:

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1. The gender pay gap: myths, meaning, and major factor

What is it?

In casual conversations and common sections alike, the ‘gender pay gap’ is often misunderstood. It’s not about men getting paid more than women for the same role – that’s called unequal pay, or pay discrimination (and is also sadly ‘a thing’, even in this day and age).

No, the gender pay gap is based on the average difference between men and women’s hourly pay. For example, it tells us that progress is being made here too – falling to 7.4% for full-time employees in April 2020, from 9% the year before. But why does it exist at all?

Why does it exist?

  • Fewer women in leadership, and barriers to progression: in our recent report with Robert Walters and other D&I partners, we saw just 29% of women held C-suite roles and only 36% were in managerial positions. Unequal pay is definitely a reality for leaders too. In finance, male directors are paid an average of £722,300 – when women get £247,000 plus 86% of women company directors are in lower-paid non-executive roles too.
  • More women work in lower-paid (and at-risk) sectors: the pandemic has seen mass retail closures, and redundancies for its majority women workers – and some highlighted a comparative lack of support for women-led industries like beauty, which received no specific support despite being worth twice that as car manufacturing to Britain’s GDP. This goes deeper. A recent wave of wage disputes in supermarkets highlighted the way traditionally female and male roles are perceived and rewarded, with checkout staff earning significantly less than warehouse workers.
  • A lack of transparency at the organisational level: gender pay gap reporting has its uses, but if companies aren’t transparent about pay grades then women can’t identify pay discrimination in their own workplace. If job adverts have “competitive salary” in their description, consider what there is to hide.

2. Working mothers: childcare, parental leave, and attitudes

Not unproblematically, it used to be called “having it all” – something not levelled at men who’d like to enjoy a career and family life all at the same time. Thankfully, the world has moved on somewhat… but what’s recently become clear is that there’s still a long, long way to go:

  • Childcare pressure & Covid-19: During the first lockdown, women did 78% more childcare than men – with a survey finding 79% of women said homeschooling became their responsibility. Setting aside the mental toil, the TUC saw 70% of furlough requests from working mothers were turned down – leaving a frightening number either having to use annual leave, take unpaid leave, reducing their hours, or leaving their role entirely.
  • Sustained social attitudes: when it comes to working mothers, attitudes have become more liberal – where 58% disagreed that it’s a women’s job to look after their home and family in 2008, this has risen to 72%. But still, only 7% agree that mothers with preschool children should work full-time – with 33% believing they should stay at home.
  • Low take-up of paternity leave: for heterosexual couples, sharing parental leave could be key to changing social and workplace attitudes – but it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. Shared Parental Leave, introduced in 2015, is eligible for roughly 285,000 couples a year, but forecast take-up is just 2-8%.Why? Attitudes aside – though just 15% believe only women should take parental leave – this may be both symptom and cause of the pay gap. In couples where one is lower paid, finances likely make the decision for them. To combat this, many advocate a ‘use it or lose it’ offering for fathers instead.

3. ‘Man as default’: workplace and workwear safety

Beyond social attitudes and cultural expectations, there are concrete ways that women are disadvantaged in the workplace – from the inconvenient, to the deadly. And a lot of these physical things are down to the idea of “Caucasian men aged 25 to 30, who weigh 70kg” as the default person, for everyone from manufacturers to medical researchers.

  • Uncomfortable workplaces: the standard office temperature was originally based around the metabolic resting rate of a standard man, explaining why many women feel much colder at work. A small complaint, sure, but consider that your newly remote female workforce may be less inclined to return to an office where blankets and hot water bottles are needed in summer.
  • Unusable equipment: for anyone who’s struggled to use one of the larger smartphones due to their small handspan, the challenges of unsuitably sized tools make sense. From wrenches to cement bags, workplace equipment can make life hard for many women – with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health suggesting this was the reason for a higher rate of wrist and forearm injuries in women carpenters.
  • Unsafe workwear: more relevant than it ever was, ill-fitting PPE can be even more dangerous. In the emergency services, just 5% said they had no problem with PPE – from body armour to stab vests – with women doctors and nurses struggling with too-big masks during the pandemic. Because ‘unisex’ really means ‘for men’.

So what can we do about it?

It makes for discouraging (and tiring) reading, but knowing really is half the battle. The best thing organisations can do is start a dialogue – be honest about salary grades, be clear about parental leave options, be open to hearing complaints and challenges. Only then can your organisation really be a part of making change happen.

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It’s time to start the conversation

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