International Women’s Day 2013: from Fighting for Maternity Leave to Pay Gap

Kathryn NawrockyiThe Challenges Faced By Women in the Workplace

By Kathryn Nawrockyi

Last week, I was invited to hear three successful and inspiring women share their experiences and insights on women in the workplace.  In celebration of International Women’s Day, 'Women@Macquarie' showcased the talents of three powerful role models: Steph McGovern, BBC Breakfast Business Reporter, and Noreen Doyle and Eithne Wallis, two of Macquarie European Infrastructure Fund’s female board members. The event was sponsored by Martin Stanley, who is Chair of the Diversity Action Group and Global Head of Macquarie Infrastructure & Real Assets. 

Noreen Doyle made the important point that it is truly fantastic that women are being celebrated globally on International Women’s Day, particularly by businesses like Macquarie. She reminded us that recognition on this scale is a relatively recent development in the West; in many countries it is actually a national day of holiday.

Hearing from these three high achieving women – who were honest and down to earth about their experiences – was a reminder of just how far the ‘women’s movement’ has come for women at work in the 100 or so years since the day was established. From the audible shock in the room, I think it is safe to assume that long gone are the days of being the only woman on the trading floor having to grit her teeth as yet another female stripogram arrived – a birthday ‘treat’ for a male colleague; or being a new mother, having to fight for the right to take maternity leave, only to return and be taken off her job for fear that the subsequent ‘new mother hormones’ would impair her ability to do it properly. These retrospective glimpses reiterate that women in the UK today are exceptionally fortunate to have the career choices they do.

The speakers shared so many great insights with the women (and men) in the audience, and several important themes came up repeatedly. These were:

  • The impact of unconscious bias in recruitment, sponsorship and promotion. Importance for women to be aware of unconscious bias in themselves, and others
  • The importance of diverse slates during recruitment. If one type of candidate is only ever interviewed, then the team or company will only ever recruit or progress one type of colleague
  • Mentoring and sponsorship are essential. An individual shouldn’t be afraid to seek out a mentor/ sponsor, particularly if a structured programme isn’t in place, and be clear about what they want them to do
  • Confidence. Have confidence in yourself, and don’t be afraid to take a challenge or make a change in your career.

Sadly, there are still barriers to overcome before women have true parity in the workforce –pay, leadership, progression and sector representation are all ongoing challenges. This was brought home to me all the more by three items in the news this week.

First, we heard about ‘sexist’ heckling by students during a debating competition at Glasgow University Union. The speakers targeted were both competition winners and amongst the top twenty debaters in the world. They also happened to be women, and it was their gender that became the sole focus of their harassment.

Second, Hescu’s Futuretrack research showed that female graduates are still more likely to be paid less than male peers with the same qualifications upon entering the workforce.

Third, Boardwatch’s latest review shows that the percentage of women on boards of FTSE 100 companies has plateaued at 17.3%.

Opportunity Now’s three campaign aims – where we encourage our members and all organisations to take action– are pertinent to each of these stories:

  1. A better gender balance for leadership progression
  2. Unbiased recognition and reward for all
  3. Agile work cultures that are fit for the future

There is still much to be done on our journey towards gender equality in all workplaces. Whether in leadership, sector representation, recruitment, or reward and recognition, we need a collective effort - and all individuals and organisations have a vital role to play.