International Women’s Day 2020: No room for complacency on women and work

Post author image. Charlotte Woodworth
Image of Charlotte Woodworth

Every year, for more than a hundred years, International Women’s Day has seen people and organisations around the world celebrate progress and identify hurdles still to clear when it comes to gender equality. Charlotte Woodworth, Gender Director at Business in the Community (BITC) discusses how to achieve vital goals.

Last week, women around the world saw a rich and powerful man convicted for crimes against women that many thought he would get away with. Harvey Weinstein’s fall comes amid a newly energised global debate about women’s rights and wellbeing, particularly in the world of work.

Beyond the headlines, what is the true state of women’s equality at work? 

In the UK, more women are in paid work than ever before1. A third of all board positions in the UK’s FTSE 100 companies are now held by women2. The introduction of gender pay gap reporting has brought fresh data and renewed focus on the wage gap between men and women. On the flip side, women make up the majority of those in low-paid work3, the majority of those suffering in-work poverty, and still face a lifetime of earning less than men – the gap in pay between full time employees actually widened last year4.

Progress at the very top may be beginning to tick over, but below the elite board level – where most of us live and work – women in senior ranks remain a rare sight. Widening the lens to consider demographics beyond white women and men paints an even more alarming picture – there are no women of colour represented within the highest levels of the civil service. There has never been a woman of colour Supreme Court Judge5.

Efforts to unpick some of the drivers of inequality in the workplace, including the tendency for women to shoulder the bulk of caring responsibilities in the home, have not delivered the step change so urgently needed. Five years after the introduction of shared parental leave take up remains abysmally low.

We also know that, for many women, work is not a safe place. From sexual harassment and physical intimidation to discrimination because of pregnancy, women employees report in countless surveys that earning a living can also mean being vulnerable and scared6.

“It’s time for the government to strengthen legislation to support a faster pace of change”

Luckily, wider society is not taking this lying down. The global #metoo campaign is just one of the many different movements demanding better. In the UK, Pregnant then Screwed, Flexforall and others are joining with unions, leading businesses and policy makers to accelerate the pace of change. Against those ground-up movements, the government has committed to reviewing parental leave policies and is considering making flexible working the norm not the exception under law. Employers such as Aviva are leading the charge regardless – offering parents of all genders the same level of time off and pay. Monitoring bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission have renewed their efforts on stamping out sexual harassment, and many household names notably Lloyds of London are taking brave new steps and confronting cultural problems heads on. Here at BITC we are working with myriad businesses looking to ensure their culture and practice reflect their ambitions when it comes to ensuring inclusive, welcoming workplaces for all.

What should the government do?

Alongside our work with businesses, we feel it’s time for the government to strengthen legislation to support a faster pace of change. The UK was one of the first countries in the world to introduce gender pay gap reporting and the law has played a key role in shining a light on the persistent, stubborn problem of unequal pay. But we now need to go further.

We are calling on government to require that alongside revealing any gap in pay, companies also develop and make public their plans to tackle it. BITC can help support businesses with crucial action planning through both materials and advisory. Read more about BITC’s Gender agenda.

This year’s International Women’s Day, on March 8, falls at a time of national and global disruption. Work to improve the lot of women at work has had patchy success, as we look forward to the next decade there is no room for complacency. We must seize on the questions posed by Brexit, the government’s planned Employment Bill, and the promise of movements like #metoo to ensure that equality at work is no longer an aim but a reality.

References

  1. UK labour market: May 2019 (2019); Office for National Statistics; available at ons.gov.uk
  2. Third of FTSE 100 board members now women, but Business Secretary says more needs to be done (2020); Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy; available at gov.uk
  3. Aleks Collingwood (2018); #IWD2018: time to loosen the grip of poverty on women in the UK; Joseph Roundtree Foundation; available at jrf.org.uk
  4. Ben Chapman (2019); Gender pay gap widens for full-time UK workers amid ‘dismally slow’ progress; The Independent; available at independent.co.uk
  5. Sanmeet Kaur (2020); Sex and Power 2020; Fawcett Society; available at fawcettsociety.org.uk
  6. Sexual Harassment in the Workplace is Found to Affect Over Half of UK Women (2016); Safeline; available at safeline.org.uk

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