The message of International Women’s Day 2023 is that businesses and individuals should ‘embrace equity’. In addition, UN Women is using the day to promote innovation and technology for gender equality.
The day arrives as several recent studies have pointed to frustratingly slow progress towards fairness and equality. A PwC report published this month showed that the UK had slipped down its women in work index; from 9th to 14th, with a lack of affordable childcare pinpointed as a leading factor in a widening gender pay gap and a decline in the female labour force participation rate.
Last week, the global Equileap report on gender equality at work found only slow progress and regression across several indicators, leading Diana Van Massdijk, Equileap’s CEO, to comment: “Global progress on gender equality is happening, but it is far, far too slow. It’s easy to get frustrated by the wasted opportunity this creates for everyone.”
We need to overthrow the archaic stereotypes associated with men and women” – Dr Jo Kandola, Pearn Kandola
For Ruth Leonard, senior director of sales at Indeed, this tortuous progress can be accelerated by moving away from the concept of equality and, as International Women’s Day is promoting, embracing equity. She says: “While equality means treating everyone the same, equity involves recognising and addressing the unique barriers faced by different groups to ensure fairness for all.”
She cites new research from Indeed showing that nearly half (48%) of British women encountered barriers getting work, with the top barriers being bias and discrimination. As further evidence of bias, Leonard points to the UK’s pay rise gender disparity; 38% of women were not offered a raise when asking for one as opposed to only 29% of men, according to Indeed’s Future of Compensation 2022 report.
Bias takes many forms, Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, recently told a round table at Salford Business School: “Upon doing the Myers-Briggs personality test, my most dominant colour was green which is typically diplomatic and caring. When I did this, it was frowned upon though as this isn’t seen as strong. There’s a perception that women are fluffy, but we’re not. Women are strong and the opinion that we’re weak needs to change, even if our personality type is more caring than fiery and competitive.”
‘Having it all’
Bias also accounts for women often being held to higher performance standards than men. As Victoria Lewis, CEO of behavioural training consultancy Byrne Dean, says, “the term ‘they cannot have it all’ sums up a lot of the issues around this debate. For one, it is only ever used for mothers. It is never questioned that a dad couldn’t perform at his best while being a parent.”
There is growing consensus that transparency was key to achieving better equity and exposing bias. For Leonard, this is critical. She says: “A step towards achieving pay equity is through promoting greater transparency around compensation.”
Recent Indeed research suggested that women in the UK agreed with this, with 1 in 5 saying the number one priority for employers should be more transparency. “On this International Women’s Day, I encourage employers to commit to greater transparency,” says Leonard.
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Equileap’s global study also puts the onus of greater transparency as a key indicator of progress.
Its research found that 98% of Spanish companies publish their gender pay data, compared with only 12% of US companies. Progress is slow, however; only 22% of companies globally publish their gender pay gap (up from 17% in 2022 and 15% in 2021).
Business psychologist Dr Jo Kandola, partner at Pearn Kandola, says International Women’s Day 2023 can play a role in “raising awareness of why we need to overthrow the archaic stereotypes associated with men and women”.
She argues that the roots of the issue lay with gender stereotyping. “Gender stereotypes are problematic, as they assume that there are differences between men and women in terms of skills and abilities – however very little data exists to back this up.
“Breaking these biases is crucial, as when they begin to inform our decisions, fairness becomes jeopardised. In the case of gender bias, this can lead to women having fewer career-enhancing opportunities and unequal pay for the same roles as men.”
Carol Howley, chief market officer of email signature firm Exclaimer addressed the barriers faced by women in the tech sector. She highlights that women often believe “they need a whole host of prerequisites to get into more technical jobs. But passion is just as important. Demonstrating passion is key for anyone looking to land a career in tech, or in any other industry for that matter. However, it’s a key differentiating feature for women who face additional challenges due to the gender imbalance in the industry.”
Many of our skills are transferable and this isn’t always valued, as it doesn’t necessarily fit into traditional ways of operating” – Dr Kathy Hartley, Salford Business School
This gender imbalance was embedded in many organisations’ structures, according to Dr Kathy Hartley, lecturer in people management at Salford Business School: “How we structure organisations needs to be addressed by some workplaces”, she says. “They are often built around traditional, male hierarchical ways of working but a lot of women prefer to work in a different way. As women, we have different experiences and we can bring a lot to the workplace from other areas of our lives. Many of our skills are transferable and this isn’t always valued, as it doesn’t necessarily fit into traditional ways of operating or career frameworks used by organisations, and I think that needs to change.”
Perceptions and traits
While Kate Palmer at Pensinsula, warns against the male perception of women as “fluffy”, entrepreneur Lucy Lettice, co-founder of sustainable period care brand &Sisters, argues that the very traits being mischaracterised by some men as “soft” actually give women an advantage in business.
She says: “With men dominating the business world, it is easy for women in business to feel the need to diminish innate traits in order to see success. On the contrary, women stereotypically possess many traits that are invaluable to business such as problem-solving, communication, and empathy. Research shows that from a list of London firms where at least one-third of the bosses are women, they had a profit margin more than 10 times greater than those without any women in a leadership roles.”
Victoria Lewis agrees with Palmer in the sense that women may possess special traits connected with their gender, adding (citing the successful leadership of Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon) “women hold themselves to higher account, with an internal, rather than external, locus of control”.
She adds: “I believe that self-awareness and success are not mutually exclusive. Authenticity and vulnerability ultimately translate to strength.”
Perhaps acceleration of progress in equity may depend on wider awareness of human psychology and how it applies to leadership and the workplace as much as it does on practical measures such as extending affordable childcare.
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