Tackling Gender Inequality at Work

Rachael Saunders, Head of Communications Opportunity Now

Blog by Rachael Saunders Head of Communications Opportunity Now

This article appeared on Guardian Careers pages on Wednesday 6 February
49% of the UK’s workforce are women, but there remains a 19.5% median hourly gender pay gap and imbalanced representation at senior management and board level.  Despite this, it widely accepted by employers and government that there is a strong business and economic case for gender parity in the UK’s workforces, not just a ‘moral’ case.

There are a plethora of effective ‘interventions’ for an employer to choose from, but how do they know which will most effectively redress their workforce inequalities? Actions that have the most impact on gender parity in the workplace were identified in the 2012 Benchmark Trends Report, conducted jointly by Opportunity Now and Race for Opportunity.

Tackling bias in recruitment
Be it entry level or board feeder pools, recruitment is a major barrier for women’s progression, and is often impact by unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is the assumptions and attitudes that shape all of our behaviours, without even realising it. From the stereotyping of characteristics, roles and abilities of women and men, to unconscious mirror-imaging in recruitment or progression, whereby candidates who display similar behaviours and skill sets to the interviewer or superiors are more likely to flourish.

Here are four of the most impactful actions undertaken by organisations displaying no bias in their recruitment processes:

  • Mandate unconscious bias training in recruitment: 67% of organisations that did this showed no significant difference in the rates of conversion from ‘shortlist’ to ‘hire’ for men and for women
  • Set targets for recruitment of women: at every level, particularly addressing those departments or levels that are under-represented. This requires thorough monitoring and measuring of the workforce
  • Make recruitment partners aware of gender diversity policies and objectives
  • Task recruitment partners / panels with providing shortlists containing women

More women in management
The following actions directly correlate with higher levels of women at senior management and management levels:

  • Regular equal pay audits: the Benchmark shows a direct correlation between these and a greater number of women in senior management positions.
  • Flexible working: enabling flexible working directly correlates with more women in management positions. It is known that there is a ‘drop-off’ of women at management level, often due to rigid working patterns and attitudes of ‘presenteeism’ that restrict maternity leave returners ability to balance work/life priorities. Flexible working is an effective means of retaining this (costly) talent.  
  • Review promotion selection criteria: ‘equality proof’ the core competencies and make them transparent to all employees and reduce the chances of disadvantaging any one group
  • Monitor and measure promotion rates: address areas of underperformance – why are women less likely to be promoted into or within roles and departments?
  • Specific gender strategy: this correlates with a good representation of women managers, suggesting that a targeted strategy with a strong business case on gender impacts on the proportion of women progressing through the organisation

Accountability of senior business leaders
All of the organisations that undergo the Gender and Race Benchmark have a commitment to equality and inclusion in their workplace, and it is telling that a high percentage of these organisations have made their senior leaders accountable for change: 

  • Accountability: 79% and 72% of organisations ensure that heads of functions and other senior managers are personally accountable for delivery of the organisation’s diversity objectives, respectively.
  • Objectives: diversity and inclusion behaviours are part of performance assessment for Board members (74%), heads of functions (70%) and other senior managers (68%). For example, clearly demonstrating (often through 360 degree feedback) that they are ‘walking the talk’ and/or are an inclusive leader, etc.

What to conclude?
We can draw two clear messages here. First, confirmation that data is essential as it enables employers to take effective action.  Second, that equality of opportunity is not just about ‘upskilling’ (i.e. ‘changing’) women; it is absolutely about having a dedicated gender strategy that aims for long-term organisational and cultural change.  

It is also gratifying that carrying out equal pay audits, flexible working and tackling unconscious bias have a clear impact on women’s progression - particularly at senior management levels.

We know that change will not happen overnight. But these actions equip female professionals to push for the most effective change in their organisation, whilst becoming gender champions and role models. Alternatively, they know how to identify employers with genuine commitment to recruiting, retaining and progressing talent - regardless of gender.  

Further information on the Opportunity Now and Race for Opportunity gender and race benchmarking surveys is available at: