Today is the 108th International Women’s Day, making it one of the oldest and best known awareness days that we commemorate. Its purpose is to “celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women”, whilst continuing to promote gender parity.
It can’t be denied that we have come a long way since the movement’s early beginnings,
where women across the World had yet to be granted the right to vote and were rarely
allowed to work in professional roles. My grandmother, who was a nurse for 35 years, has told me stories of how a fellow nursing trainee was not permitted to sit her final exams, simply because she had just got married. Luckily, this kind of blatant discrimination is a thing of the past in the UK.
Or is it?
The recent publications of gender pay gaps by medium to large companies and
organisations have sadly shown that gender discrimination in the workplace is still rife,
often showing that men are still being paid more than women overall. We currently don’t have clear answers as to why there are such large discrepancies in pay though. Is it because women are still being paid less for doing the same job as men? Are there more women working in part-time roles compared with their male counterparts? Do women make up more of the lower paid, menial roles within a company, whilst the men are in higher paid roles? Personally, I suspect that all of these factors are contributing to the ongoing inequality in the workplace, and this is supported by some of the media reports that have come to light over the past few months, such as the former BBC China editor, Carrie Gracie, quitting her role after discovering that she was being paid less than she would have been if she had been a man. From my own experience and observations in the workplace, part-time roles are more likely to be occupied by women, whereas men tend to be in full-time roles. Reports that only 8% of senior boardroom executives were female in 2017, and that this number may be falling, are alarming, but again support the suggestion that women are working in lower paid jobs within a company.
To my mind, this is a mistake. Given that girls tend to do better at school, and women are
more likely to go to university than men (both of which are problems in their own right –
equality works both ways after all), we have to ask what is happening? Why aren’t more of our gifted and talented women making it to the highest roles in a company? Why do we see so many large gender pay gaps? The argument that it is a woman’s choice to take on these roles, and that women simply aren’t choosing to do so doesn’t wash with me. If women aren’t choosing to work in highly paid roles, then we need to do something to make these positions more attractive to them.
When childcare is a contributory factor in preventing a woman from climbing higher on her career ladder, the Shared Parental Leave policy, brainchild of the Liberal Democrats and brought in under the Coalition government, has attempted to address inequalities for new parents. Sadly its uptake has not been as popular as expected, partly due to companies not being clear about their parental leave policies. The 30 hours free childcare provision for 3-4 year olds is another good policy, but how do parents going back to work when a child is 6 months old cover the interim period where there is no support (except in specific circumstances)? Traditionally, it has been left up to the mother to arrange her work around childcare commitments, and this is why I and many of my “mum-friends” have chosen to work part-time. However, this is an outdated view given the myriad of family setups that exist. In addition, there is a lot more to be done to make the workplace more flexible and supportive of parents and carers, and by adopting policies that are applicable to all employees, companies have the opportunity to provide all their workers with a better work- life balance. This would allow fathers/partners to be more involved in their child’s life and upbringing, something that is known to improve the emotional and social well-being of the child, and must surely benefit the family as a whole.
Another potential barrier to women taking on senior boardroom roles is the perceived
culture of masculinity within that environment. Personally, I do not relish the thought of
trying twice as hard as my male colleagues to justify my opinions, knowing that they are
more likely to be dismissed simply because I am a woman. I do not want to work with
colleagues who are wondering what it would be like to sleep with me, or alternatively what I should do to make myself more sexually attractive. I do not want to work in an environment where I daren’t show that I am upset because I will be seen as “weak and incapable”. I can’t think of anyone who would want to work in such conditions. Okay, I have never worked in a boardroom. I have worked in this sort of environment, however; it made three years of my life very difficult and was a factor in putting me off pursuing my chosen career path. In some ways, the reality of boardroom culture is irrelevant if companies are unwilling to be transparent in their working practices and culture, because if this is my opinion of boardroom etiquette (admittedly an extreme “worst case scenario”), then I am sure there are others who also hold this view. The Harvey Weinstein scandal and subsequent #MeToo movement has done little to dispel the fears that some men in positions of power are perfectly happy to abuse their positions, and until now have done so without fear of retribution.
So, why would a more gender-balanced workforce be so beneficial to society? Firstly,
exploring more flexible working arrangements would benefit everyone, not just “working mums” – after all, we’re not looking for concessions or special treatment here, just a more thoughtful approach to working arrangements. The traditional 9-5 working day is an artefact of an outdated and male-centric society, and how many of us actually work these hours nowadays? A workforce that has greater gender parity at all levels is one that is drawing on a larger talent pool, and one thing we hear almost ad nauseam is that businesses are looking for innovative, “out-of-the-box” thinkers, so why not employ innovative, “out-of- the-box” thinkers, i.e. people from demographics that these companies haven’t employed before? That could include women, ethnic minorities, international collaborators… In fact,
companies that truly embrace diversity rather than pay lip-service to it stand to gain a great deal. Another aspect of having a greater proportion of women at the highest levels is that a cultural shift will have to take place. Rather than boardrooms being the Boys’ Clubs of old, they will have to take on a more nuanced, reflective and accepting mentality, one that embraces emotions and supports rather than denigrates newcomers. The upshot of this could mean improving mental health within the workforce, challenging toxic masculinity and valuing a healthy work-life balance, all of which would benefit not just the company (happy and healthy employees are surely more productive…), but society as a whole. This is the point of this year’s International Women’s Day hashtag, #BalanceforBetter. A more balanced workforce will be better for business, better economically, better for society.
This brings me to putting forward a challenge for you. As a society, we must demand better for ourselves and our friends and families. In order to take action, we first need to find out what action to take, so we must listen – listen to our co-workers, employees, friends and family. What working conditions would make their lives (and ours) easier? Does it include flexible working patterns, embracing new technologies, or even changing the payscale to value productivity rather than clocked-on hours? Also, we should listen to ourselves and trust our instincts.
Next, we must reflect on our own behaviour and practices. Do we hold prejudices that are unhelpful towards our colleagues? Have we said something (knowingly or not) that has upset a co-worker? I’m not saying that we should walk on eggshells at work, but just be sensitive to the feelings of others and pay attention to how they react.
Finally, act with compassion. This could mean changing something in our workplaces to make life easier for someone who is struggling, or even for ourselves. Sometimes, it could mean speaking quietly to a co-worker when they have acted out of turn, letting them know that what they did wasn’t acceptable. It takes courage to do all of this, but without courage, we will not be able to achieve #BalanceforBetter.