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What will it take for women to be equal at work in the UK?

SAM SMETHERS: Employers and policymakers can drive real progress in improving women’s working lives

women equal at work

This piece was originally written for the Global Institute for Women's Leadership's Essays on Equality publication, which features contributions on a range of different issues by leading researchers and figures working on gender equality.

Read the full collection of essays

At the Fawcett Society we focus on the structural barriers to women’s equality. But there are clearly cultural and attitudinal barriers too. The argument is often made that changing the law won’t help and what we need to do is to change workplace culture. Yet we know that attitudes, behaviours, culture, law, policy and leadership are all inter-connected and influenced by each other. The challenge is that we need change across all of these areas if we are to achieve equality for women at work. So what would really make the difference? And where do we start?

Inequality is first and foremost about an imbalance of power. Equal pay legislation, sexual harassment at work, even the parental leave system and flexible working practices, all reflect that imbalance of power in different ways.

Nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act came into force in the UK, the employer still holds all the cards when it comes to pay. Gender pay gap (GPG) reporting, which began in 2018 in Britain, helps force large employers to look at themselves and confront the reputational risk of gender inequality in their organisations. But while it provides average pay gap data, it doesn’t give the individual woman information about what her colleagues earn, to see whether or not she’s being paid equally for doing the same job or work of equal value. This has to change.

Moreover, the focus of GPG reporting has been on reporting the numbers rather than the action proposed to address the gap. We need a requirement for mandatory action plans from businesses, showing the concrete steps they will take to reduce their pay gaps. Reporting on the gender pay gap by ethnicity is also crucial, as Fawcett research shows that the pay gap is experienced very differently depending on which ethnic group you belong to. We also want to see more employers covered by GPG reporting, so the threshold must come down to include companies with 100 employees or lower.

We have a leave system which still presumes it’s the 1950s, designed with nine months’ paid and three months’ unpaid leave for her, compared with just two weeks of paid leave for him.– Sam Smethers

One of the main causes of the gender pay gap is the unequal impact of caring roles. But is this surprising when we have a leave system which still presumes it’s the 1950s, designed with nine months’ paid and three months’ unpaid leave for her, compared with just two weeks of paid leave for him? Yes, shared parental leave exists and has been a welcome option for some families, but the mother has to share her leave with the father, and it’s rarely paid to him at the enhanced rate, so he can’t afford to take it. We have to redesign our leave system to give dads longer, better-paid leave, which is use-it-or-lose-it and can be taken at any point in the child’s first year.

In addition to this, there could then be a period of shared leave available too. Let’s remove the constraints from parents so that they can share care as they wish. If the presumption was equal responsibility in caring for children, we would design our leave system very differently. The fact that it is not is, in the main, driven by outdated attitudes about whose job it is to care for children.

The right to request flexible working has been a huge success. But the perception prevails that it’s more about tweaking the nine-to-five model than an opportunity to transform the way we work. Just 15 per cent of jobs are advertised as flexible, and one in three requests to work this way are turned down. Many workers do not have access to flexible working, and the lower-paid experience the least flexibility according to a recent TUC survey.

We could transform this picture overnight if we legislated to introduce a presumption of flexibility, making every job flexible from day one unless there is a good business reason for it not to be. If the default was flexible rather than inflexible, we would start the conversation in a different place.

Senior roles must also be made available on a part-time or job-share basis. If we assume that the higher you go the longer your working hours become, we will never shake the near-universal male domination of leadership in business and other sectors.

We want to see is proactive responsibility placed on employers for the culture they promote in their own organisations.– Sam Smethers

Another fundamental change we want to see is proactive responsibility placed on employers for the culture they promote in their own organisations. We have called for a new duty to prevent harassment, now the subject of a government consultation, because we want to see more done to prevent the behaviours and incidents, so powerfully demonstrated by the #MeToo movement, that women experience on a daily basis. By configuring equality in terms of individual rights, we have failed to address who is responsible for creating the conditions for equality to exist.

An example of this is the debate about non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which have been blamed for covering up harassment and discrimination. But for the individual woman, the right to settle a grievance or dispute without having to go public at work or more widely may be extremely important. In our rush to dispense with NDAs, let’s not lose focus on her and what is in her interests. Her threat to talk about it may be all the bargaining power she has to resolve the issue and move on. It is not her job to sort out the organisation – that is the employer’s responsibility.

Don’t get me wrong, we want to see NDAs reformed as they have been widely abused. But they are a symptom of a bigger problem, which is the imbalance of power. A duty to prevent harassment and discrimination on the part of the employer would rebalance things and get the emphasis right regarding the highly sensitive and difficult tasks of raising disputes or grievances, without taking anything away from women in the workplace and their rights.

Finally, we need to better value the work that women do, get more women into sectors of the economy where they are underrepresented and into senior positions. Adopting a real living wage for the lowest-paid would be a step forward. Targets, quotas and positive discrimination could provide a step change in women’s senior representation if we are bold enough to go there. Dealing with the underlying gender stereotypes we promote and replicate is more challenging, because they are everywhere and they start from a young age. But Fawcett’s Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood is looking at how we can better support parents and teachers and what responsibility the commercial sector has for change.

I don’t pretend that the changes we propose provide all the answers. All of the above needs to be underpinned by compelling leadership and confident managers who buy in to the vision for equality and don’t act as roadblocks to policies and procedures that work. But government can and should do more to drive progress. It is time to stop accepting the glacial pace of change and instead, when we say we want gender equality, start to look like we really we mean it.

Sam Smethers is Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society