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The Barriers to Gender Equality

Category: Pro-Opinion, STEM, Gender Equality, unconscious bias, enei, glass ceiling

The Barriers to Gender Equality

Women in Work Then and Now

In a country where universal suffrage only came into force 87 years ago, the history of women in the workplace is a short but fast paced tale. The ideas of equal pay for women, and women having careers, largely began in the late 1960s. Before then the World Wars had opened up the UK to the idea of women working in occupations outside of care, teaching and administration, with women taking on the roles vacated by the men who were sent to war. Alongside the wider changes in society through the 60’s and 70’s, so called Baby-Boomer women were not content to be limited in their careers.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 enshrined in law the idea that men and women were to be paid the same, and was triggered by striking Ford sewing machinists (a story later immortalised in Made in Dagenham) and the need for such legislation in order for the UK to enter the European Community. Now, 40 years after the Act came into force, how much more is left to do for women in the workplace?

In the UK, women’s roles in the workplace are far removed from that of 40 years ago. But there is still a great deal to be done in terms of equality. According to the Office for National statistics, last year women in full time roles earned on average £5,552 less than men in full time roles. The gender pay gap is a worldwide phenomenon; according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014 none of the 142 countries featured had complete economic equality between the genders.

Unconscious Bias

The reasons are numerous, but the cause fairly simple: the concept of unconscious bias. The unconscious is the brain’s way of making an automatic judgement – for instance when one pulls their hand away from a hot object without having to think about it. The brain also carries biases – implicit associations to things that it has formed through experiences, the media and a person’s society and culture. We can see how this applies to our perceptions of people through stereotypes – for instance, in the UK when we imagine a mugger, they will often be a young man wearing a hoodie. But say, for instance, your town was plagued by muggings carried out by old ladies. Your brain will then associate elderly women with being a threat, and changes your behaviour towards this group.  We apply associations to every group of people that we encounter: bankers are greedy, politicians are liars, nurses are kind. But these associations also impact how we interact with people. The most explicit result of unconscious biases is affinity bias – we prefer those most like ourselves.

So how does this affect women in the workplace? A survey by Beyond in 2010 found that a third of those surveyed thought, on a conscious or unconscious level, that a woman’s place was in the home, not at work. This can have severe impacts on a woman’s career – a male manager with a bias towards men will more likely favour a male employee, giving them more high profile work, judging a woman more harshly and seeing their ‘mini-me’ as more suitable for promotion – all at an unconscious level.

Of course, this is equally applicable to female managers who favour women; but here we must remember that the workforce of 40 years ago was completely male dominated at management level, and today’s management structure is dominated by those appointed by the managers of the past. Therefore, we must accept that male managers are the predominant norm in business.


As we have seen, the career ladder for women is hindered by bias. For many people, starting a family and welcoming a child into the world is the achievement of a life goal, and a joyous time. However, for a woman in work, having children can suddenly end her career. Opportunity Now’s 28-40 Report focused on women between the ages of 28-40, and found that 81% of women believed that having children would affect their career progression. A recurring theme throughout the report is flexibility and support - or rather a lack of it. Many businesses in the UK do not support women returning from having children, and often lack flexibility, with the length of time spent in the office being seen as more important than productivity and outputs.

For men, the same problems do not apply: at present paternity leave for fathers lasts for two weeks, the same time away from the office as the annual holiday. The introduction of Shared Parental Leave in April 2015 allows new fathers to share the leave available to the mother, making businesses rethink their approach to employees returning after parenthood and increase flexibility and support for returning parents becoming a norm, and not just a benefit.

However, some businesses are recognising that they can do more for women with children. Goldman Sachs has introduced the returnship, positioned as an internship for women after a career break, where women are able to take on a project with the bank. This allows them to regain confidence in their workplace abilities, and catch up with new ideas they may have missed whilst on a career break. And what is in this for Goldman Sachs? They are able to tap into a resource of highly qualified and able women who would otherwise be unwilling or unable to return to work.

The Glass Ceiling

So, as a woman, you have successfully negotiated biased bosses, returned to work after having children and are ready to progress to the top of the corporate ladder. Your work is exemplary and you have achieved results unheard of in your organisation. The board is firmly in your sights. But here we have another barrier to women in the workplace. There are no women in your organisation’s boardroom.

In 2011 the government published Women on Boards, better known as the Davies Report, looking at the massive underrepresentation of women on the boards of FTSE 350 companies. The report found that of these companies, representing some of the largest private sector employers in the country, 152 of them did not have a single woman in their boardroom. The findings of the report were clear – organisations with women on their boards performed significantly better than those without, and recommended urgent action to increase the number of women on boards. These findings are backed up by research from global management consultants McKinsey, whose Diversity Matters 2014 report found that businesses with a more diverse leadership were more likely to perform better financially.

Today, 100% of the UK’s FTSE 100 companies have at least one woman in the boardroom, a massive step forward from the 79% of 4 years ago. But the work is not yet done. With women representing just over half of the UK population there is still much to be done in order to achieve gender equality in the boardroom; one non-executive place on the board is not enough.

What is STEM?

In the UK, there is one workplace sector where women remain almost unknown. This is also one of the UK’s highest paying, and fastest growing sectors: that of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Research from the WISE Campaign found that in 2014 only 13% of employees in the sector were female.

Up to GCSE level, both boys and girls show equal aptitude and participation in the sciences. However figures from the Joint Council of Qualifications reveal that in 2014 girls dropped out of almost every science subject at A-Level; only in biology were more girls taking classes than boys. In physics the difference is most distinct: girls made up only 21% of students studying the subject at A-Level. This figure falls still further at university, with female representation on engineering degree courses just 12%.

What is left to do?

As we have seen, there is still much to be done before there is real equality between men and women in the workplace. Many companies are working with enei and other organisations to make their managers aware of their own unconscious biases and providing the tools to manage them. Organisations such as the 30 Percent Club are influencing top FTSE companies to appoint more female board members. The government’s Think, Act, Report project is encouraging firms to publish gender information including details of the gender pay gap within their own organisations. As yet there is no Government scheme to increase the number of women in STEM careers, although many charities and professional bodies are doing their own work on this agenda.

There are real signs of change in the equality of women in the workplace. But this change is still happening far too slowly. Business is slow to change, and the government is slow to act, with short term thinking instead of long term action. The Office for National Statistics’ Women in the Labour Market report found that just under a third of women aged 16-64 are not in work, and over 43% of those that are in work are part time. Society is still highly patriarchal and men dominate the positions of power. Although women in the workforce are much better off than their counterparts of 40 years ago, there is still a long way to go before women can go through their careers on an equal footing with men.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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