Gender matters

Man and woman in suits

An inclusive workforce where women and men have equal access to career opportunities is a crucial foundation to a fair society.

It’s not only an issue of social equality, of doing the ‘right’ thing, it makes good business sense. Research suggests more diverse executive boards lead to higher returns on equity. An inclusive workforce is one of the key pillars to the UK’s new Industrial Strategy announced in 2017. Organisations are learning that diversity at all levels leads to new ways of thinking, more challenge and more innovation. Diverse teams are more representative of the world we live in today and have greater insight into what customers need and want.

UK workplace statistics, however, don’t match these good intentions. Government figures show that, on average, women are paid 9.7% less than men, with men making up the majority of higher-paid jobs. Women occupy 73% of all the junior roles in the labour market, with only 32% of director roles are held by women. Compared to men, women are four times more likely to have given up work because of multiple caring responsibilities. UCAS reports that a third more women now take a degree at 18 than men, and an increasing number are studying STEM subjects - yet women’s level of achievement slows once they enter the workplace.

Our research draws attention to three major workplace issues, the gender pay gap, the lack of women in the leadership pipeline, and the take-up of family-based policies - all of which are interwoven. With the Work Foundation we are focusing on the policy-practice gap in these areas. In other words, how the development of organisational policies intended to be fair and ‘gender neutral’ don’t take into account - or necessarily have any effect on - all the assumptions that shape everyday practices and attitudes at work. These gaps mean policies have little impact.

Employer concerns

We held a Gender Matters think-tank to find out from business about the specific gender challenges they faced. The think-tank also provided a forum for academics, policymakers and practitioners to exchange knowledge and share best practice.

Some tricky problems were highlighted. There was a strong sense that organisations viewed inequality as “just the way it was” which tended to justify a lack of action. One important issue raised was that senior management teams sometimes lacked understanding of the problems involved and were unaware of the business case for gender equality. This could be compounded by what participants called a “manager lottery”, where experiences are shaped by who your manager is, and a deference to leadership which can result in people simply maintaining the status quo. Although policies might be in place, women have reported they don’t always feel able to speak out on gender inequality issues.

Participants pointed to the ways in which women often excluded themselves from more senior development and promotion opportunities. Sometimes this was thought to be an issue of poor self-esteem and a belief that they needed to meet all the specified criteria when applying for a job, unlike men. At the same time there was also seen to be a lack of foresight among leadership teams who didn’t seem to appreciate how male and female leaders bring different perspectives.

Some practical considerations were discussed relating to basic routines, processes and expectations. For example the timing of meetings, the need for travel, and for ‘always on’ working via digital devices. Participants felt constrained and those with family responsibilities - most typically women – had to find “workaround” strategies rather than calling for change. This is consistent with reports of a poor take-up of family-friendly policy offerings.

Addressing the policy-practice gap

The think-tank shared examples of workable solutions of how we might tackle the policy-practice gap:

• re-write job specs to use language that doesn’t discourage women from applying (long hours, lots of travel, working weekends);

• providing employees with information and advice on using policies like flexible working so they become more ‘normal’ and accepted;

• collecting accurate data on the reasons why women leave jobs;

• more effective role modelling from senior management on the importance of gender equality, including the need to increase the number of women in leadership roles;

• to raise awareness of external responsibilities by encouraging women and men to “leave (the office) loudly” when it comes to family commitments;

• for female senior leaders to share their experience;

• having a wider discussion about moving from judging men and women on inputs (the hours they work and where) to outputs (what they’ve actually achieved);

• making use of occupational psychologists to observe workplaces in action and set out the hidden biases involved;

• provide non-financial reward packages - an a la carte menu of services that might include childcare and flexible leave;

• integrate inclusive policies into the company’s objectives and not leave them as a ‘bolt-on’.

Participants were aware of the increasing need to tackle gender equality given the Government’s recent attention to the issues and mandatory legislation on gender pay. Through the Academy for Gender, Work and Leadership the network will continue to raise awareness of the importance of on-going gender policy-practice gaps. Other events include a planned briefing of Government ministers at Westminster (November 2018) and a public lecture in Lancaster (January 2019).

Professor Claire Leitch and Dr Valerie Stead, Lancaster University Academy for Gender, Work and Leadership.

The Gender Matters brochure and details of any events can be found at:

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