On International Women’s Day 2019 Gi Group UK’s Kate Maddison-Greenwell looks at whether enough is being done to redress the balance for working women.

The UK has taken great strides in the right direction by giving women opportunities to make working an achievable goal, but there are still so many hidden ways that I believe women are disadvantaged.

The introduction of initiatives like Equal Pay and Shared Parental Leave are fantastic ways to encourage equality and ensure that women have equal rights – but what do they mean in practice?

Equal Pay as we know makes it illegal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job. However, Gender Pay Reporting has shown us that Equal Pay does not mean equal opportunities.

In fact, there are many reasons why men are more likely to earn more overall, some of which we will look at in this blog.

Early Years and the Reinforcement of Stereotypes

In our modern society we are increasingly moving away from enforced gender stereotypes for children – where the girls play with dolls and the boys are encouraged to ‘be a man’. However, it is worth considering that some of the unconscious biases that exist from childhood can shape our futures. When we label girls ‘bossy’ or ‘difficult’ when they stand their ground, we are creating a learned behaviour of self-doubt that can affect them into adulthood. ‘If I make a fuss, will I still be promoted?’, ‘am I good enough?’, ‘will I be labelled as aggressive if I keep pushing this point?’. This can often make women less inclined to ask for pay rises or negotiate salaries or benefits.

For this reason, women are more likely to be undervalued, both by themselves and also by their managers. This can also have financial impacts – if a woman starts on a lower salary to begin with, any future automatic pay rises are immediately lower. For example, if we assume that a man and a woman start at the same company on the same day. Both salaries are advertised at £18,000. The man negotiates the salary up to £20,000, but the woman accepts the job at £18,000. The impact isn’t just on the immediate wages, assuming that they both get automatic pay rises every year in line with inflation, over the course of their careers the man would earn £172,541 more than the woman.

Recruitment Process & Maternity Pay

It is of course illegal to choose a man over a woman for a role purely because of their gender but it is difficult to believe it is not a consideration for small companies when the costs of supporting a woman through maternity leave are so high. Statutory maternity pay is 90% of your average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first 6 weeks, then £145.18 or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks. If a company wants to provide an enhanced maternity support package over and above this, they have to find the funds to do so, whilst also paying the cost of the cover for the employee on maternity leave.

This is a huge financial outlay, particularly for smaller businesses that are unlikely to be able to afford this, and therefore will only be able to offer the statutory pay which can be reclaimed from the Government. Women therefore miss out because they may not get the job in favour of a man owing to the cost implications, or if she does get the job she may get minimal maternity pay. Women in this situation are forced to consider other roles that they may not enjoy or be qualified for because the maternity pay is better.

Shared Parental Leave & Childcare

One of the key reasons that women do not earn as much as their male counterparts is the issue of Shared Parental Leave and childcare. While the Shared Parental Leave policy is a great initiative for allowing both parents to take an active involvement in their babies early months, it does have limitations. As statutory Parental Leave figures are quite low, parents are forced to pick the higher salary to live on, which in many cases tends to be the father, meaning the mother stays at home regardless of who wants to be home with the baby. According to a 2018 article, only 2% of fathers took up parental leave.

This trend continues into the childcare years. According to Money Service Advice[i], the average cost of childcare is £122.46 per week (part-time) or £232.84 per week (full-time). Owing to the cost implications, childcare again becomes a financially driven decision which means it is likely to be the father that stays at work whilst the mother stays at home. Often the cost of childcare is more than a part-time salary rendering it more expensive for Mum to return to work, further compounding the Gender Pay Gap between parents.

For the women that do return to work after an extended period at home, they are met with the challenge of workplace discrimination as two-thirds of female professionals end up working below their potential when they return to work from career breaks. To further compound matters, returning mothers also earn up to a third less than men.[1]

Menopause

A less talked about issue facing women in work is the menopause. It is crucial that this topic is normalised in the workplace as it affects women’s careers, progression and performance. Around 10% of women end up giving up work due to impacts of the menopause[ii] such as loss of memory, hot flushes and changes in temperament that become too difficult to deal with.

So, What Can We Do to Redress the Balance?

Educate

We all need to encourage girls and boys from an early age at home and in schools to see past gender stereotypes. Schools should also be involved in teaching children about the real-life challenges women face in their working lives and teach them about the achievements of inspirational women who have made huge impacts in a wide range of industries. In the workplace, companies should elect a ‘women’s champion’ who can challenge stereotypes when they see or hear them without the need for formal intervention.

Gender Pay Gap Reporting

From 6 April 2017 businesses with more than 250 staff were required by law to publish their Gender Pay Gap figures. While the reports were a positive step in the right direction, we need to look at some more commentary behind the numbers. Why is there a pay gap? What historical factors drove this? Is it because men are more likely to start on a higher salary? Is it because you have more part-time workers that are women? More needs to be done to answer these questions.

Men to Empower Women

With only 6.4% of full-time executive roles at FTSE 250 firms taken up by women[iii] in the UK, it is important that men as well as women understand the positive impacts that a more balanced and gender equal workforce brings.

Women to Empower Women

In order to help pave the way for equality women must help each other to flourish. Particularly women in leadership positions who must actively empower other women to succeed. This means understanding their positions, creating opportunities for them to undertake high-profile tasks and listening to what may hold them back and removing any barriers to progression.

Conclusion

While positive steps are being made in the right direction to redress the balance for women in the workplace there is still a lot more to be done. The impacts of women having children and the knock-on effects of maternity leave and childcare to earning potential are still a major cause of gender imbalance. While initiatives such as Equal Pay and Shared Parental Leave show that more is being done to help women close the gap, they still highlight some endemic issues in the system. Together men and women in the UK must do more to ensure that women in the workplace are given the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/work/why-we-urgently-need-to-solve-the-return-to-work-dilemma-for-mot/

[i] https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/articles/childcare-costs

[ii] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/work/menopause-discrimination-real-thing-bosses-need-get-involved/

[iii] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jul/17/number-of-women-in-top-boardroom-positions-falls-report