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Advances for Women? International Women’s Day 2017

On International Women’s Day, it is a good opportunity to take stock and reflect on how much we’ve achieved in terms of equality in the workplace.

Without doubt we have made advances, but it is disappointing that 47 years after the Equal Pay Act we still seem to be discussing the same old issues. Discrimination against pregnant employees is still a very real issue, in fact a report by the Women and Equalities Commission found that not only was discrimination against pregnant women on the rise, but that things were worse now than a decade ago.

Another, reoccurring issue is the lack of women in boardrooms. Women make up 50% of the working population yet are woefully under represented at board level.

I should say, however that it is extremely pleasing to work for a firm where our Senior Management Board comprises three women and, our Managing Partner and 71% of the partners are female.

In 2010, Lord Davies led a government-backed inquiry into male dominance in boardrooms. At the time, just 12.5% of FTSE 100 directorships were held by women. The inquiry was announced with much fanfare. There was some suggestion that if companies didn’t address the problem they would face government sanctions. In reality the final report, published in 2015, merely made recommendations and ‘encouraged’ companies to agree to voluntary targets.

While there has been an increase of women at board level since 2011 – 26% of FTSE 100 directorships are held by women, the pace of change has been slow. The increase is largely due to women having been appointed to non-executive roles, which are often perceived as less powerful.

We are still some way off from achieving parity in pay, too. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that women in the UK are on average paid 18.1% less than men.

According to the Fawcett Society – a leading charity on gender equality – at the current rate of progress, it’s likely to take over 50 years to close the gap. While it is unlawful to pay a woman less than a man for the same or comparable job, there are various factors which contribute to pay differentials, these include discrimination against women, unconscious bias, and the prohibitive cost of childcare.

Due to the problem of unconscious bias and the fact that men maintain a tight grip on decision making roles within companies, women are disadvantaged when it comes to recruitment and promotion. This is likely to be a significant contributing factor to the gender pay gap.

For centuries men have benefited from positive discrimination, so why should women have any qualms about calling for discrimination in favour of women? For women to break through the glass ceiling we need to introduce quotas for interview panels as well as shortlisting women for guaranteed interviews. There also needs to be training on unconscious bias – which in my view should be mandatory.

Another factor is childcare. The UK has some of the most expensive childcare provisions in the world. This is keeping women out of the labour market. Women returning from maternity leave are penalised with fewer promotions and lower pay. This year, the government will introduce 30 hours of free childcare per week and Theresa May has today announced that the 2017 Budget will set out details of a £5m fund to help mothers return to work after a career break. Whilst this will help, we need a radical cultural shift in the way we think about women at work generally. Measures need to be put into place to encourage men to take shared parental leave so that childcare isn’t seen as the domain of women and so that men feel more comfortable about taking up this option.

Also, more flexibility in the labour market would help families to balance work and care. Given the technological advance, flexible working should be the norm rather than seen as an exception – in many cases, small adjustments to the working day can make a huge difference to enable women to return to work.

On 6 April 2017, gender pay reporting will come into force and it will require employers with at least 250 employees to publish details of their gender pay gap on a publicly accessible website, and on an annual basis. This is a step in the right direction but there are some concerns that the measures may not be as effective as they seem to be toothless as there are no civil or criminal penalties for failure to comply. Also, there are some concerns about potential “dodges” which could distort the numbers such as the express exclusion of partners and employers managing company structures tactically to avoid going over the 250 person threshold.

In my view the progress to date has been slow. We are now at risk of inertia or worse still, there is a risk that Brexit may turn back the clock on gender equality, as a considerable amount of legislation and case law guaranteeing rights for women has emanated from Europe. Gender equality is not just a moral obligation but makes sound business sense. Unless these underlying issues are tackled, we are likely to be discussing the same issues a decade from now.