Let’s start by getting a few things clear, so we don’t have to quibble later on:
Gender equality is not about women. It is about people.
All of us – men and women – should enjoy fair access to jobs, pay levels, and opportunities for career progression. That’s a simple matter of justice. No one should be treated less favourably than another person because of their gender.
All of us – male and female – lose out when people face barriers because of their gender. The Women and Work Commission found that unleashing women’s full potential could be worth £23 billion a year to the taxpayer. There’s also a growing body of evidence that companies with more balanced gender diversity at the top are outperforming their rivals.
And we all have to take some responsibility for gender equality. It is our attitudes and our actions that either reinforce or challenge the status quo.
Gender inequality still exists in the UK workforce and it is women who are drawing the short straw. Over forty years on from the Equal Pay Act, women still receive less pay than men for the same work: an average woman loses £361,000 over her working life compared to an average man. Women occupy the majority of the lowest-paid roles and are woefully under-represented at senior levels across all sectors.
Gender inequality will not magically disappear by itself. In the face of all this evidence, I have heard too many women dismiss the need for action, claiming that the big battles have all been won and that we are on the brink of real change. In more optimistic times, with more women entering the workplace than ever before, it was easier to believe this might be true. Now austerity has shown it to be a false hope.
Women’s progress in the UK workplace has stalled since the credit crunch. Female unemployment has increased dramatically and is now at a 25-year high. At current rates of change, the gender pay gap will not be eliminated until 2040. The UK has fallen to 18th position in the Women in Work Index, which ranks countries on key indicators of female economic empowerment. This won’t change unless gender inequality becomes a priority.
So, now we’re all agreed that gender inequality exists and we need to do something about it, what should that be?
Well, there are a number of different tactics that have been tried and tested with varying results. These usually aim to change unfair systems, or tackle ingrained attitudes that hold women back. Be warned: the second task is far harder and takes far longer than structural change, but it cannot be ignored. Any organisation that wants to increase its gender equality should start by taking the following steps:
1. Measure how you’re doing. There’s a saying that we ‘measure what matters’. If gender equality matters to your organisation, then you should be measuring how well you are doing. Look at gender distribution across recruitment, pay, progression and retention, and where women are working in your business. This is the only objective way to establish whether you are treating men and women fairly, and if you are making progress.
It will also help you to identify where you are doing well and where you need to focus your efforts to improve. What is your particular challenge? It may be to review pay scales; to increase transparency in the appointment system to your board; to highlight the work of senior women who can act as role models; to tackle a macho culture; to offer mentoring to women coming through the pipeline; to encourage young girls to consider a career in your sector; to tackle unconscious bias in your interview panels; to change the selection criteria you are setting for certain roles; to work with recruitment agencies who understand your commitment to gender equality. You may find that men are struggling in some areas, and it is right to tackle that unfairness too. Just don’t waste your time and money on a fancy initiative that isn’t relevant to you.
2. Set targets. Once you understand the equality issues in your organisation, you can select priorities for action. Targets help to sharpen focus and increase the pace of change. Set targets that will have a specific, positive and measurable effect based on the evidence that you have gathered – and make sure that someone sufficiently powerful will be held accountable for achieving them. (A quick aside to avoid any confusion: aspirational targets are not the same as quotas. Quotas mean that people are selected to join an organisation because of who they are, rather than what they can do, to make up the numbers. This is positive discrimination which is illegal in the UK. Employers should always hire the best person for the job, regardless of their gender, age, race or any other equality characteristic. Having said that, it is derisory to dismiss women appointed to boards to fill quotas as undeserving. How many men currently occupy spaces on boards that they don’t truly deserve just because of their gender?)
3. Keep people engaged and informed. The behaviours of everyone in your organisation can impact on gender equality, so everyone needs to understand how they can contribute to driving change. Remember that unconscious assumptions and attitudes more often create barriers to women’s progression than overt discrimination. Make sure people are aware of how their actions can affect the position of women in your organisation. The leaders of organisations which have been most successful in achieving gender equality are vocal about their commitment to the issue and have a real will to challenge unfairness and discrimination.
Of course, this is scratching the surface. The main barrier to gender equality in the workplace goes beyond the practices and cultures of individual organisations.
The elephant in the room is the motherhood penalty. There is still an assumption that women will be the primary carers for children – reinforced by the difference in parental leave entitlements for men and women – and this dramatically impacts on women’s pay levels and employment prospects. Women in their twenties are actually paid more than men – the gender pay gap hits after women turn thirty; women are three times more likely to be in part-time (worse-paid) roles than men; and female employment rates drop after a woman has her first child and never fully recover. This isn’t fair on men either, who should feel able to play a more active role in caring for their children.
Until we resolve this issue, we are not going to achieve gender equality. This isn’t an easy task. It will require cultural change, government intervention and serious investment. At a minimum, we would need to provide universal childcare, genuinely shared parental leave and more flexible working practices.
But really, can we afford to make women wait another 25 years just to get paid a fair amount for a fair day’s work?
Sarah Kaiser is the Diversity Projects manager at Tate