8th March 2023

There’s a strong business case for gender equality

As it’s International Women’s Day and everyone is posting about women in the workplace, our Employment Lawyer Anna Lovett discusses the key issues holding us back from true equality…

The Equal Pay Act was introduced by Parliament in 1970, but 53 years later, data shows we still have a gender pay gap, with the average women working two months a year for free compared to her male counterpart.

Having represented clients and organisations in discrimination claims, I am not naïve enough to consider the law to be the answer to gender equality in the workplace and beyond. That said, I certainly think it has a role to play…

Despite progress over the last 50 years, women are still under-represented in leadership roles – only one in four C-Suite positions and only eight in 100 CEO positions are held by a woman – and the question is why? There are many studies on this subject, but in my experience as an employment lawyer, the recurring issue is flexibility.

Two years after COVID forced businesses to experiment with home working, we’re still behind in terms of true flexibility. Flexible working encompasses more than “home working” and true flexibility will take into account when, what, where and how work is carried out. Choice is critical and thinking outside the box is key. There’s evidence that saying no to flexibility is actually costing the economy almost £2bn per year and a recent report showed that for 49% of female leaders, flexibility is one of the top three things they consider when looking at the companies they’d work for (along with employee wellbeing, diversity, equity and inclusion). The Government is taking steps to introduce the right to request flexible working from day one, but that’s still a small step – it’s just the right to request and it doesn’t address the issue of actual flexibility in the workplace.

The issue of flexibility also feeds into our approach to childcare and family leave provisions. In the UK, women are entitled to up to a year on maternity leave, yet a father is only entitled to two weeks off, reinforcing the outdated assumption that women are the primary caregivers and fathers are the breadwinners. Until we have equality and choice in home-life, we won’t have it in the workplace.

Culture is key to implementing this change. Buy-in from the top level is imperative. There’s no point introducing flexible working if there is still a sigh and an eye roll when the employee leaves at 3pm for the school run. Leaders, both male and female, need to model and champion your flexible approach.

I’m hopeful that companies will recognise that equality within the workplace isn’t about ticking boxes and that there’s a real opportunity here to stand out. There’s an amazing chance to make positive and genuine changes within your workplace, to be seen as forward-thinking, to attract and retain the best talent regardless of gender and to enjoy a happier workforce which will improve efficiency, productivity and profits – which is ultimately what every company is aiming for.

This involves everyone – it’s not a female issue. Everyone has a part to play in equality and those that play their part will benefit hugely.