To update Jane Austin’s 19th century message with 21st century context, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that an employer in possession of a successful business must be in want of a male-dominated trust board and female support staff.“
The UK has been trying to address the disparity between men and women in the workplace since the introduction in 1975 of the Sex Discrimination Act. Nearly 50 years later, active steps continue to be taken to level the workplace to a point where gender ceases to be a factor.
We look at three such examples that have been in the spotlight this spring.
How Do Caring Responsibilities Limit Women’s Career Progression?
New research by Business in the Community (BITC) and Ipsos has found that women’s careers are held back due to the challenges of balancing work and caring responsibilities (including caring for children and other dependent relatives).
Around three in five women have avoided applying for a job or promotion because of concerns about how they would balance the job with their caring responsibilities. Meanwhile, only one in five men avoided applying for a job or promotion for this reason.
Latest trends show that more women than men in the UK are accessing Higher Education and gaining degrees. The participation level for young women attending University in the UK reached 55.7% in 2019-2020, compared to only 44.3% for young men. This suggests that more women than men have the requisite qualifications to be holding senior positions in the workplace. However, data suggests that employers are not utilising this resource effectively.
How Can You Demonstrate Your Commitment to Gender Equality at Work?
Ensure employees are aware of and understand family friendly policies such as flexible working and shared parental leave. In our experience as HR Consultants supporting our clients, requests for flexible working arrangements are almost exclusively made by women.
The option of shared parental leave came into force in the UK in 2014, allowing fathers/partners to take up to 12 months off work (instead of the mother taking up to a year’s maternity leave). However, applications for the male partner to share any part of the leave entitlement are still rare.
Promoting family friendly policies to both men and women should help to challenge the stigma around male care-givers, as well as any lingering stigma around working flexibly.
The Government is also looking to improve flexible working rights in the UK, with consultation currently underway – we will report separately on this as changes are implemented.
Setting the Culture
You can further improve equality in your workplace by embracing a shift in culture. Reflect on your workforce and take proactive steps to embed change – for example:
• Consider caring the norm, not the exception.
• Champion equitable access to care for all genders in your policies.
• Foster a culture that supports men to care.
• Promote flexible working directly to men.
Normalising Career Gaps
Are we seeing a global change in attitude about time off work? Having carried out an international survey, LinkedIn suggests we are.
The stigma of career breaks is gradually being eroded, with employers increasingly accepting gaps and recognising the positive advantages that can be gained from extended breaks.
Staff who have travelled, taken time to pursue personal goals, cared for loved ones or just looked after their own health are recognised as benefitting from a crucial developmental advantage, both personally and professionally, when they return to the workplace.
As testament to this, LinkedIn has introduced a new career feature that allows users to add career breaks to their profiles. The feature includes a choice of 13 different reasons for your career gap, including travel, career transition, bereavement, personal goal pursuit, gap year, voluntary work and care-giving.
Women currently represent the largest demographic of people taking career breaks. Around two thirds of career-break-related posts on LinkedIn are by women.
As time out of the workplace becomes increasingly accepted by employers and society alike, whether taken by men or women, the disproportionate impact that care-giving currently has on women’s career progression and earnings potential should gradually be mitigated.
How Can Employers Support this Trend?
What can you do as an employer to replicate the global trend, to retain your best staff and remain an attractive employer to strong candidates?
- At interview, explore the gaps and contextualise the benefits gained that will transfer to the workplace.
- Meaningfully promote the offer of sabbatical leave to your staff. We have seen a sharp increase in companies offering sabbaticals, coupled with more programmes available to help employees transition back into work after a break.
- Embrace a culture where both employer and employee recognise the mutual advantages that career breaks can deliver.
Further efforts to address the disparity between men and women in the workplace are being implemented from the top down, with the FTSE reporting earlier this year that of the UK’s top 100 companies, the composition of men and women sitting at board level is creeping slowly towards a 50:50 split, to represent the UK population’s demographic.
As at 22 February 2022, women held 39.1% of FTSE 100 Board positions, although 15 companies in the top 100 have yet to achieve the target of 33% of women sitting around the board table. That target is due to increase to a minimum of 40% of women on the top 350 FTSE Boards, by 2025.