Last week the Office for National Statistics published a report revealing the state of women’s employment and pay in modern Britain. Although more than two-thirds of women aged 16 to 64 are now in work, progress towards equality has been considerably slow over the last two decades. Women are considerably more likely to work in lower-paid jobs, such as caring or secretarial roles, with just one in ten working in a skilled trade. Even amongst professionals, where there is a fairly even male/female split, there are marked wage differences. Nursing and software programming are the most common professional occupations for women and men respectively, yet the average earnings for nurses are over £4 an hour less than for software developers.
Particularly striking is that after the age of 22, men are always more likely to be in work than women. There is also a similar split in earnings, with the pay gap widening with age after 25. A number of newspapers suggest this could be due to women dropping out of the workplace when they become mothers and often working part-time or ‘settling’ for lower-paid jobs on their return. Childcare costs are also cited as a reason either for mothers to not bother going back to work or feeling pressured to re-enter the workplace. So what can we do to tackle the situation?
At our recent Opportunity Now Awards Showcase, many of our 2013 winners talked about flexible working for all staff, at all levels. This could go a long way to destigmatise the view that flexible working is only for mothers and will potentially have a negative effect on career progression. Others discussed their sponsorship programmes to help female staff move into senior leadership roles, or their work experience schemes to attract girls to STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] careers, where women remain significantly under-represented. Almost consistently across panel, winners cited clients wanting to see a diverse workforce as a significant driver for these initiatives – even to the extent that companies lose out on contracts for not sending gender balanced (or even representative) pitch teams.
The effect of clients switching to rivals could potentially be huge for business, and it may be that this encourages more companies across all sectors to undertake similar plans, not only to encourage women to join them, but also to retain their best and brightest female talent. By working together with employees at all levels – male and female – to adapt to the needs of their workforce, and by reaching out to schools, colleges and partner organisations to support the development of female talent, businesses can become what their clients and consumers want to see: increasingly reflective of the world we live in.
Women have been inching towards equality in the workplace for too long; now it’s time for businesses to put their foot on the gas.