Women in the workplace

Comment: IWD24 - Inspiring inclusion in the workplace

The forthcoming celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March gives us pause for reflection and there are those would question whether it is even necessary to mark it anymore. It is true that achievements have undoubtedly been made over the years, yet the question remains: have women truly achieved equality in the workplace? In this article, BNU Head of Business and Law, Sarah Williams, delves into the current status of gender equality in the UK workforce, exploring the latest initiatives and statistics to see how far we have come.

Success

Overall, the picture is mixed but strides have definitely been made in advancing gender equality in the UK. In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of women in leadership positions across various industries. According to a report by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), women now make up 32.5% of board members in FTSE 100 companies, an improvement of almost 2% from the previous year (BEIS, 2022). Mckinsey also found that, ‘Companies with more than 30 percent women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30, and in turn these companies were more likely to outperform those with even fewer women executives, or none at all’ (How diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) matter | McKinsey).

The gender pay gap, although still present, has also been narrowing. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the gender pay gap for full-time employees in the UK decreased from 9.0% in 2019 to 7.7% in 2023 (ONS, 2023). This indicates that efforts to address pay disparities between men and women are yielding positive results albeit at a painfully slow speed.

The problem of representation

Representation, both under and over, remains a barrier to female equality in the workplace. On the one hand, women are underrepresented in particular industries, such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, where, according to the Government Equalities Office, women account for only 29.4% of the STEM workforce in the UK (www.gov.uk, 2023). This imbalance not only limits women's career opportunities but also perpetuates gender stereotypes.

On the other hand, fields in which women are over-represented tend to be lower-paying and traditionally female-dominated sectors such as caregiving, cleaning, and retail. According to The Kings Fund, women constitute 78% of the health and care workforce in the UK, a sector known for its low wages and limited career progression opportunities. In these sectors, women fulfil largely lower end roles which reinforces gender inequalities and contributes to the persistence of the gender pay gap.

Motherhood and menopause

The impact of motherhood on women's careers remains a significant barrier to gender equality in the workplace. The PwC ‘Women in Work 2024’ report highlighted that motherhood penalties, such as decreased earning potential and limited career advancement opportunities, disproportionately affect women in the workforce. This not only hampers women's professional growth but also perpetuates societal norms that prioritize caregiving responsibilities over career aspirations for women.

The issues that women experiencing the menopause face at work have also been in the spotlight recently as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) issued guidance for employers on managing menopause in the workplace in order to enable women to stay and flourish in work.

Change for good

Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach involving policymakers, employers, and society as a whole. Legal initiatives such as the Equality Act of 2010 have played a part in promoting gender equality in the workplace by mandating equal pay for equal work and enhancing support for women's career progression. However, businesses have a pivotal role to play in fostering inclusive work environments that empower women to thrive professionally. Implementing flexible work arrangements, mentorship programs, and diversity training can all help mitigate barriers to women's advancement in the workforce.

Time to scrap IWD?

As this short article demonstrates, far from being outdated, the need for International Women’s Day remains as vital as ever. While progress has been made towards achieving gender equality in the workplace in the UK, significant disparities and challenges persist. Women continue to face obstacles related to representation, pay equity, occupational segregation, motherhood and menopause penalties.

This IWD24 we will celebrate our first ever Women in Business and Law conference at BNU aimed at inspiring students, employees and employers alike to advocate for positive change in their lives and workplaces and to #inspireinclusion. We have come so far but still have a long way to go, we hope you will join us on our journey.

Sarah Williams is the Head of the School of Business and Law at BNU.

The BNU School of Business and Law, Women in Business and Law inaugural conference takes place on 8th March 2024; you can book here https://womenofBNU2024.eventbrite.co.uk.