What can businesses do to promote gender equality?

IWD x1

International Women’s Day is just around the corner and once again our focus turns to gender equality. Representation of women in positions of power has been steadily increasing, but still has some way to go before overall equality is achieved.

Despite accounting for half of the population of the UK, women make up just a third of university professors and FTSE 100 directors and 34% of all elected MPs. Even in Holyrood, only 36% of our current MSPs are women. When you dig even deeper to look at the representation of women from ethnic minorities these figures shrink even further.

So what can be done to build a gender equal world?

To begin we need to dump the idea that this is a ‘women’s issue’ in the bin. Equality is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue.

We would never argue that opportunities should be given to people simply based on their gender, as this does nothing whatsoever to combat inequality. Opportunities need to be earned as this is about equality for all, not just businesses being able to tick off a diversity target and move on.

The key focus needs to be on the changes that businesses can make to level the playing field to ensure that everyone, male, female or non-binary, has the same access to job opportunities.

#1 Reform Shared Parental Leave

Having a child and taking full maternity leave can have a big impact on the progression of a women’s career as extended periods of absence can often hold people back from promotion. A new form of shared leave would see women able to return to work quicker after childbirth, minimising the time that they will be out of the loop and more equally balancing the scales in terms of childcare and work responsibilities.

Shared Parental Leave in its current form has been on offer for just under 5 years, but we bet you couldn’t name a single pal who’s taken it up. Figures on the actual uptake can vary depending on who is writing them, but it’s estimated that about 2% of eligible parents have taken advantage of it.

A big part of the small uptake is that unless their employers have an enhanced workplace policy, parents taking shared parental leave will only receive just over £145 per week. This means it’s just not financially viable for many couples.

If we are to banish archaic attitudes to childcare and create equal parental leave, we need to make shared leave a more financially realistic option and strengthen paternity leave to provide an alternative route for new parents.

#2 Offer everyone better flexible working options

Without flexible working, working mothers’ careers can often stagnate or in some cases regress as they are forced to take part-time work that does not advance their skills; however, flexible working can have real benefits for all employees and businesses too.

This is not just an issue for those with children as those who have caring responsibilities for parents or other relatives can feel just as trapped by a rigid 9 to 5 shift pattern.

Businesses should introduce flexible working policies that work for all staff and make it clear that anyone can apply whether they are male or female and whether they have children or do not.

Once everyone is benefitting from the better work-life balance that comes with being able to work flexibly, women will not be so restricted in the roles they can commit to.

#3 Give the next generation more role models

Mentoring in the workplace is incredibly important and can make all the difference in the career progression of younger women. While we don’t mean to suggest that men cannot be excellent mentors to women, but it may be beneficial for women to learn the experience of other women who have progressed in their industry.

This is especially important in traditionally male-dominated sectors, such as Engineering or Technology where women tend to plateau in mid-level roles. Having a female mentor can provide much-needed support and guidance but can also give women more confidence that their work in these sectors can be valued and rewarded.

We just need to be that bit bolder in our efforts to make the workplace fair and equal for everyone. Remember this is about acting rather than just being seen to be doing the right thing. A gender equal world can help economies and communities to thrive; what’s not to love about that?

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Posted on March 5, 2020