This year’s theme for IWD is Embrace Equity and as I scanned the IWD website, I was greeted by images of 17 women and 1 man smiling and giving themselves a hug.
My first thought was, seriously?! Given, the state of gender equity in the UK and globally, one day of IWD events and hugging selfies really isn’t going to cut it, however well-intentioned it is. And my second thought was, where are all the men?! The IWD images make it clear that this fight is still overwhelmingly being fought by women and, frankly, it’s feeling like one more thing for women to add to their already overwhelming task list.
First of all, let’s get clear on what we mean by gender equity and how it can be distinguished from gender equality.
Equality is giving everyone equal access to the race and assumes that the race will be fair if everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in it. Equity is about understanding that we each start the race with individual advantages and disadvantages so allowing everyone to participate isn’t enough; they need to be able to participate according to their own needs, so that the outcome is equal.
Why does this matter? Using the race analogy, we need everyone to cross the finish line; to thrive and reach their full potential. By focussing on the outcome rather than the race itself, fostering equity will help everyone, rather than a select few, to cross the line. This will lead to all of the great stuff that comes from increased inclusion and belonging, which we talk about in our other blogs so I won’t go into here. This isn’t about giving anyone an unfair advantage - it’s about reducing the impact of the disadvantages that some people have at the beginning of the race, so that everyone can compete on a level playing field. It means everyone will be better able to contribute to the collective success.
So what state is gender equity in?
Well, there have been some successes, but in many respects progress has been frustratingly slow and has even gone backwards in recent years.
There’s been hardly any movement in the gender pay gap and the “motherhood penalty” is causing women’s careers to stall or end when they have children (listen to our podcast with our partner BlueSky on this here). Thereis a lack of affordable and good quality childcare, which is preventing women from returning to or staying in work after having children. Systemic bias and daily micro-aggressions are still rife in many workplaces, causing women to be excluded and exclude themselves from development and promotion opportunities.
Employers’ lack of support for menopausal symptoms is pushing highly skilled and experienced women out of work often at the peak of their careers, as researched by our partner GenM. Added to all of this, women are exhausted and burning out at a rate far higher than men – highlighted recently when Jacinda Adern and Nicola Sturgeon, stepped down. There are many reasons for this, which Victoria Lewis explores in her recent article. The risk of burnout is even more pronounced when gender intersects with other characteristics such as race and disability.
And outside the workplace, the events of the last few years have highlighted that in heterosexual relationships, especially when there are dependent children, it’s still women carrying the mental and emotional load, even when both partners work outside of the house. The seemingly endless juggle of dealing with household responsibilities, shopping, childcare, looking after the family’s emotions, preparing, researching, organising, planning, and anticipating everything so life flows well. This means many women feel they cannot physically or mentally put in the extra hours demanded by many workplaces, so workplace gender inequity continues to widen.
And let’s not forget the global picture, our international sisters in countries like Afghanistan and Iran who are fighting for basic human rights. The things women here are fighting for may seem privileged – this doesn’t mean we should stop doing them, but we need to constantly support women internationally too.
There is frustration that the Government isn’t acting quickly enough (or at all) to address these issues - for example, to treat childcare as critical national infrastructure and invest in it accordingly, provide proper paid paternity leave to fathers, and add menopause as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act and require employers to make reasonable adjustments for menopausal symptoms.
So what can employers do?
Women need support in the day to day reality of their life, every day, not with grand, tokenistic gestures one day a year that make little difference. Here are some suggestions on how that support can be provided:
1 Educate your employees, especially leaders and managers, to surface their biases and notice the language used to describe women and men respectively. Are successful and assertive women in your organisation described as “aggressive” or “bossy”, referring to traits that in men would be seen as “confident” and “strong”? Call out microaggressions that challenge a woman’s competence, for example, interruptions, comments on their emotional state, or questioning their judgement. Encourage men to give women credit for the work they do and acknowledge their contribution. Consider the way meetings are run so that women can participate fully.
2 Have clear and objective criteria when hiring, managing performance and promoting. In the absence of clarity, people fill the gaps with gut feel, which is usually a preference for someone like them. Notice the tendency to overestimate male performance and underestimate a female’s. Get really clear about what “good” looks like and how can it be measured.
3 Create psychologically safe workplaces and equip your leaders and managers to be approachable, listen better and have human conversations. This will encourage women to raise issues that are impacting their performance, for example, crippling period pains, menopausal symptoms or childcare challenges. At byrne•dean, we’re increasingly being asked to provide training on this so please get in contact if you want to find out more.
4 Formally recognise the emotional support, EDI initiatives and “office housekeeping” that women do in the workplace. These are largely invisible and “unpromotable” tasks, yet we know from the pandemic just how critical they are to workplace culture and wellbeing. In spite of all this, relatively few employers formally recognise employees who go above and beyond in these areas. Include them in job descriptions and compensate women for them.
5 Reconsider the career opportunities for women working part time. In a recent study, 69% of women said their career advancement was impacted when they started working part time. Be more open-minded and creative about supporting job-sharing. There are many benefits and success stories but it’s still largely unavailable, particularly for leadership positions.
6 Carefully consider the impact of hybrid working. Many employees and especially women have found working from home the key to being better able to balance their various responsibilities in life. Keep looking for ways to enable this while proactively taking steps to reduce the impact of the “proximity bias” towards being in the physical office, which may impede female advancement.
7 What steps could you take without waiting for legislation? For example, enhancing paid paternity leave for fathers so they’re more likely to take it - in Sweden this has had a big impact on rebalancing the division of household responsibilities. And/or could a four-day week or flexible working hours for all be trialled in your organisation?
8 Cultivate male allies to advocate for gender balance and convince other men to do the same, to call out inequity and bias when they see it. Men in senior leadership outnumber women 2 to 1 but women are doing roughly double the amount of mentoring and sponsorship. Men can do more of this.
9 Consider also what initiatives can be put in place to encourage men to do more of the invisible labour at home to lighten the load for their female partners. Eve Rodsky in her book Fair Play provides practical tips for heterosexual couples to divide household labour more equally. However, I’ve only heard women talking about it, so it risks becoming yet another thing to add to their mental load!
10 How can you be sure any of the above is working? It takes listening of course. But depending on the level of pyscological safety in your organisation, not everyone will be comfortable sharing their thoughts. Using platforms like such as our partner Rungway allows you to capture the stories of individuals anonymously, as well as broader people trends and monitor change in real time.
So let’s have less of the grand token gestures, please. If we are going to reach the goal of global gender equality sooner than the three centuries(!) predicted by UN secretary general António Gutterres last week, we need collective action from everyone, including men, every day.