International Women’s Day: #Balance for Better

8th March, 2019
International Women’s Day: Balance for Better | ContractingWISE

Rather than just a generic ‘celebration of women’, March 8th marks a call to action for accelerating gender balance across all arenas. With organisations under increasing scrutiny from a number of influential studies and high profile harassment cases, fundamental changes are afoot. ContractingWise takes a look at why 2019 is set to mark the year that gender balance goes from being a women’s issue to a social and economic issue that affects us all.

For a number of years many companies could claim to have addressed any gender bias by employing roughly equal numbers of men and women. What the figures failed to address was a widespread inequality in pay and seniority that was allowed to fly under the radar – until now, that is. The government investigation into the gender pay gap forced? thousands of firms to publish their pay gap figures online for the first time in 2018. The figures revealed that across almost every sector men were paid more than women in comparative positions. This year, four in ten private companies that have published their latest gender pay gap are reporting wider gaps than they did last year. Of the 10% of employers that have reported their latest figures ahead of the 4th April deadline, 74% report a pay gap that favours men.

In addition to this, private studies that use the latest AI technology to search and collate data are corroborating a huge gender bias in the UK workforce. One study undertaken by a team of AI engineers and data scientists reveals that, despite the fact both sexes are equally likely to participate in the workforce, men remain far more likely than women to be in leadership roles across all sectors. For example, the survey’s key findings include:

  • 82% of all CEOs, 92% of chairpersons and 73% of directors are male, which confirms statistics already highlighted by the ONS research.
  • Of 108 economic sectors examined, 87% are biased towards men. Investment banking is 85% male, across all roles.
  • Civil engineering and oil & gas remain 80% male.
  • Creative industries such as media, music, internet and photography also remain heavily male biased.
  • Around 95% of receptionists, legal secretaries and care assistants are female in the UK.

If men are taking up the majority of the most senior positions at a company, it stands to reason that these will be the highest paid roles. For example, Easyjet reported that women’s median hourly pay rates are 45.5% lower than men’s. This is most likely because pilots make up more than a quarter of the airline’s UK employees. While just 6% of its UK pilots are women, a role that pays £92,400 on average, women make up 69% of lower paid cabin crew who earn an average salary of £24,800.

What’s clear is that the pay gap problem is part of a more complex issue regarding social attitudes and how we assign attributes, and therefore abilities, on the basis of gender. A study that looked at the language used to advertise positions found that the majority of UK industries exhibited significant male bias within their job ads. Social stereotyping means that words such as ‘dominant’ and ‘driven’ were used to steer male applicants towards certain jobs, while ‘sensitive’ and ‘affectionate’ were used to indicate a female preference. Although a minority of jobs specifically call for male or female workers, the vast majority require skills that can be equally demonstrated by either gender. In deference to this, Easyjet have set a target that 20% of new airline pilots should be female by 2020, while Virgin Atlantic confirmed they would be focusing on achieving diversity across all roles, including piloting and engineering.

Neither is the problem confined to the corporate workplace, with recent cases brought against Morrison’s by female workers claiming discrimination. The women say that not only were they paid less than male workers doing comparable jobs, but that the men received other preferential terms and conditions, such as bonus payments, holidays and sick leave. Although Morrison’s deny the claims, with Tesco facing 4bn in equal pay claims this points to a worrying disparity in how men and women are valued in the workplace.

Figures show that women currently make up 62% of those earning less than the living wage. This reflects a workplace culture that fails to accommodate or value women’s role as the primary caregivers in our society. Women often care for young children or elderly relatives. This means women are more likely to work in part-time roles, which are often lower paid or have fewer opportunities for progression. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) has previously found that one in nine new mothers were either dismissed, made redundant or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job.

Why should we care about gender balance?
Although both governments and independent studies corroborate discrimination against women in the workplace, firms can’t currently be prosecuted for having a gender pay gap. So why should we care and why is this such an important issue? It’s important because discrimination is a human rights issue, and if we tolerate it for one social group then we set a precedent. In our rapidly diversifying society, it’s likely that everyone might at one time find themselves facing unfair treatment on the basis of their gender, race, sexuality, religion or political beliefs.

We should also care because gender balance is essential for economies and communities to thrive. Recent studies on workplace culture, such as LinkedIn’s Insights report, strongly indicate that candidates are actively seeking out opportunities with firms that promote trust, transparency and flexible working practices. Rather than paying lip service to workers rights, candidates want to work for companies who demonstrate strong leadership and best practice. Stateside, a number of firms have been publishing their staff salaries online. This aims to promote transparency and trust, and to eliminate bias. Leading firms are also acting swiftly and publically to deal with their staff concerns, promoting an open culture of change to attract the best talent.

The race is on for a gender-balanced workplace, and recruitment practices will also play an important part in achieving this. After all, the representational recruitment of women into positions of authority and influence makes sense considering that half the population is female. From a business point of view, hiring candidates that collectively make up a wide diversity of skills is the best policy for success. The tide is already beginning to turn here, with clients placing a much greater emphasis on ‘soft skills’ that will enrich their workplace culture. Other major recruitment trends are seeing increasing numbers of organisations accommodating flexible working practices with split paternity leave that allows both male and female staff to work around their other commitments.

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