This International Women’s Day, the theme is #EmbraceEquity, aiming to get people talking about why, in today’s world, equal opportunities aren’t enough. Pursuing equality assumes everyone begins at the same starting line. Equity, on the other hand, acknowledges that everyone starts with different needs and challenges, and must have different types of support to achieve an equal chance of success.
Achieving gender equity in the workplace requires an understanding of the challenges working women are facing today. What insights can our network offer on issues of equity in the workplace?
To find out, Eoin Canty, Research Director and ED&I Strategic Lead at BIE, sat down with some leading women across the business landscape: Kathryn Jacob, CEO at Pearl & Dean; Katie Shortland, Finance & Transformation Director at Midland Expressway Ltd.; Lorraine Harper, Deputy Group Chief Financial Officer at Liquid Intelligent Technologies; Marie Croes, Vice President Fused Silica - Foundry Technologies Division at Vesuvius; Sam Wren, CEO at IPGL; and Sian Jones, CEO at Correla.
From general representation to the pay gap, the situation for women in the workplace has improved in recent years, but there’s a long way to go before equality is reached. “It’s great that things are getting better, but we’re 50% of the population,” says Kathryn Jacob. Sam Wren agrees, adding: “Any time you ignore women, you’re ignoring a big chunk of the workforce.”
However, in today’s marketplace women are falling out of the workforce. The problem is particularly acute at the leadership level, with women leaders leaving their workplaces at the highest rate in years in 2021. For many women, however, there’s one area that is causing particular strain – caring responsibilities.
According to ONS data, 84% of the 1.75 million people who have had to give up work to care for their families are women. Between June and August 2022, for example, 27.6% of women weren’t working for this reason, compared to 7.4% of men (although the number of men leaving the workforce is growing).
From the increasing costs of childcare to the lack of adequate parental leave, caring for young families often requires parents to choose between child-rearing and career. “These aren’t easy decisions to make but, for many, if you want to have a family, you have to make trade-offs,” says Marie Croes. “There’s still this pressure that, as a woman, you’re going to take care of the kids.”
Katie Shortland agrees: “When I announced I was pregnant with twins, a male colleague came up to me and said, ‘Well, that’s it then. You’re done now, aren’t you? That’s your career over.’”
In the face of family commitments, our panelists suggest that current structures, both in workplaces and in society at large, are not often conducive to keeping women in work. The 2022 report from the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP), What Women Want, revealed that women provide more than twice as many childcare hours per year as men, and spend more time as carers for adults as well, with around a quarter of those surveyed reducing their hours to do it. Hundreds of thousands are unable to work at all.
“In this day and age, why are women more than men limiting their working hours and therefore career prospects?” asks Sian Jones. “It should be possible to balance working life and home life without anyone having to reduce their participation in the workplace, but it can’t be just the woman’s problem to solve, either in terms of employer policy design or attitudes of parental partners.”
Acknowledging that a significant number of adult workers – disproportionately women – have caring responsibilities, and providing them with the support and tools they need to succeed in their careers would be a step towards real equity.
“We need to see a de-escalation of requests that are now, in the light of increased flexible and remote working, not unreasonable,” says Kathryn Jacob. “Businesses should be capable of flexing with people to adapt to caring responsibilities. Otherwise you risk women leaving the workplace altogether, losing all that institutional memory, abilities, relationships, knowledge and more.
Flexibility has become more normal – even expected – in the wake of the pandemic, as we revealed in our 2022 HR report. Employees don’t want to work less (reduced working hours were only desired by 17% of respondents), but they do want to work smarter.
Indeed, the CPP reports that five million women would want to work more hours if they could work flexibly. And in today’s market, where talent retention is such a pressing concern for companies, it’s a reasonable business consideration. The challenge is to find the balance between providing support and maintaining productivity.
The answer might lie in a reorientation of priorities – focusing on value, rather than time. “Businesses should stop monitoring how employees spend their time, and start measuring the value they create,” suggests Sian Jones.
The results of the recent 4 Day Week pilot programme support this idea, with the research revealing that 60% of employees were able to better combine their paid work with care responsibilities, and employee retention and wellbeing improved. 92% of companies that took part will be continuing with the four-day working week.
Jones continues: “Time spent in the business is not the issue, delivering effective business outcomes is the issue. There’s this perception subtly reinforced for women, that they’re crossing a line if they prioritise their caring responsibilities visibly in the workplace, so they try and hide it, don’t talk about, struggle privately and ultimately often formally reduce their hours to cope and avoid feeling guilty. That shouldn’t be the case. As long as work gets done, why should the business care how it is achieved? There is usually loads of room to balance both, if the employer is flexible and encourages open discussion about parenting challenges, and partners at home share the responsibility”
On the lack of representation of women in some industries, Lorraine Harper comments: “It’s tough because women would like to be approached because they’re the best people, not because they’re female. It would be great to see organisations approach hiring and supporting women in a deeper, more meaningful way, rather than something they have to do as a tick-box exercise. It should become innate in the DNA of a business – less about meeting a quota, and more about getting the best people in the right roles.”
Equity is about giving people what they need in order to be successful. With that in mind, our panelists have this advice to share with women looking to advance in their careers.
“Thank you to all our contributors to this article. While it is refreshing to read the stats that there has been change in the right direction, it remains disappointing such gender inequality in the workplace still exists. Should the conversation still be about pushing workplace flexibility as a mechanism for women to have meaningful careers? Perhaps the conversation should be about how we get as many men as possible in the room to hear the remaining imbalance and encourage caring to be more equally shared? The more men understand the challenges and recognise this not just box ticking, but about creating commercial value and measuring outcomes, the closer we will be to equity. #embraceequity”
For more advice and insights into embracing equity in your business and enabling change, please reach out to our team.