Gender Matters identifies challenges and opportunities for gender equality

Women in a business meeting.

Businesses have gender equality and inclusivity high on their agendas. Media coverage of gender issues at work has never been greater, and in recent years we have seen increased legislation to recognise the importance of gender equality, including pay gap reporting and shared parental leave policy in the UK. Yet despite this attention, women continue to be under-represented in positions of power in organisations.

The Gender Matters project, created in 2018, aims to shed light on this resilient problem by drawing on a range of international and national sources to identify the scope and range of gender challenges facing UK organisations.

Our 2020 brochure, funded by the UKRI Quality Strategic Priorities Fund (QR-SPF), was published before the unprecedented changes brought about by Covid-19. The gender and inclusion challenges identified in our brochure persist – the gender pay gap, the leadership pipeline and the challenge of managing the personal and the professional. However, the consequences of the restrictions in force due to the pandemic will inevitably have an impact on how each of these challenges are manifest, and how we think about and respond to them in our adjustment to the ‘new normal’ at work.

Already we are seeing the implications of the pandemic, including the suspension of UK gender pay gap reporting this year, with only half of companies choosing to volunteer their data. The pandemic brought reduced working times and furloughing for some, while those in the health and care sectors may be working longer hours.

All of these measures have a significant impact on women, who dominate in part-time and low-paid work and in social and health care roles. We are also experiencing alternative forms of working and the move to home-based working environments. This shift can also affect women disproportionately, as they typically take on the majority of domestic care, and there remains limited access to external support. Revealed through the blurring of home and work boundaries, these new complexities are bringing to the fore the importance of understanding how we experience, and how we tackle work-based and work-related gender inequalities.

Our brochure brings together infographics from multiple sources to illustrate the three challenges. We also focus on these challenges in the financial services sector; a key player in the UK economy and a sector where gender inequalities are particularly pronounced. By illustrating the range and scope of these challenges, we aim to provoke discussion and encourage action on tackling gender equality at work as we establish new working practices in the light of the pandemic. While each of the challenges we identify poses particular problems, as outlined below, we can also see how they interconnect to reinforce and maintain inequalities.

The Gender Pay Gap Challenge

The pay gap measures the difference between men’s and women’s average pay. Globally, and in the UK, women’s pay lags behind that of men. The UK gender pay gap is close to zero for those under 40, but widens for those over 40. There are multiple reasons for this: older women are less likely to be in managerial roles, are more likely to be in lower-paid occupations, and have increasing family responsibilities. The pay gap has consequences for later years. In the UK, women have 40% less on average in their pension pot than men. In the financial sector, the pay gap is more pronounced, with a significant gap at executive level, and with an average 40% gap in bonus pay. Going forward, with increased homeworking and a dispersed workforce, monitoring pay becomes a vital tool in measuring progress and keeping gender equality firmly on the agenda.

The Leadership Pipeline Challenge

Women's progression into senior and leadership roles is persistently problematic, creating a clear status gap. Women remain over-represented in junior roles and under-represented in senior roles. Figures show women's representation decreases sharply after middle management level. In the UK financial services sector, the gap in senior roles is particularly stark, and greater than the average across all industries at board level. We also see a perception gap in this sector where women are 20% less likely to perceive they have equal opportunity to advance compared to men. These findings indicate the need to examine how organisational cultures and systems, including recruitment and reward processes, can prevent advancement.

The challenge of managing the personal and the professional

Family responsibilities affect perceptions of women and men differently, and this in turn has an impact on behaviours. For instance, data shows that many businesses still feel it is reasonable to question women about their family and family plans during the recruitment process. This challenge therefore brings to light a practice-policy gap, where well-intentioned policy fails to be realised in practice. The practice-policy gap is evidenced by the minimal take-up of the shared parental leave policy in 2014. Poor take-up by men may, in part, be explained by perceptions that having a family will mean less commitment to work, a perception that could affect the chances of career progression. An example in the UK financial services sector, is where a strong culture of presenteeism risks mitigating the impact of flexible working practices.

Gaps between practice and policy in turn increase the difficulty of managing the personal and the professional. The impact of family responsibilities has come more into focus during the Covid-19 pandemic. The task of having to manage caring for others with no or little access to external help has shed light on how norms of working long hours disadvantage some more than others. Illuminating these issues offers organisations a unique opportunity to appraise their working practices and the culture that they generate.

Looking at the three challenges together, reveals two important issues: how the challenges interconnect to reinforce inequalities; and how the challenges are shaped by continuing stereotypes of men’s and women's roles in society.

Women's continued under-representation in senior roles helps us understand the persistence of the gender pay gap. Women's progression slows at middle manager level, typically at an age where women and men have family responsibilities. Perceptions that women are less committed to work than men on becoming a parent reinforces stereotypes of women as primary care-givers. Such perceptions can influence the extent to which women are seen as suitable for certain roles, and so maintain status and pay gaps.

The challenges, underpinned by enduring stereotypes, can fuel behaviours and practices that affect the take-up of well-intentioned policy. By failing to take into account gendered social assumptions, policy can prove ineffective, leading to a practice-policy gap that adds to the stubborn persistence of gender inequalities at work.

The Covid-19 crisis has brought into sharp focus the gendered assumptions on which we base our everyday behaviours and routines, and how they can reinforce the gender equality challenges we identify in our brochure. This presents us with the perfect opportunity to re-examine how we can move forward to develop more inclusive and equitable organisations that will make the most of all employees’ talent.

This article was originally published in Issue Nine of Fifty Four Degrees.

Professor Valerie Stead is Director of the Academy for Gender, Work and Leadership.

Find out more in the Gender Matters online feature, and hear podcast discussions involving Professor Valerie Stead; Work Foundation Director Ben Harrison; Ann Francke, OBE, Chief Executive of the Chartered Management Institute; and Julia Hoggett, Director of Market Oversight, Financial Conduct Authority.

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