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What Are The Main Barriers To Gender Equality In The Workplace?

The UK government commissioned a series of Workplace and Gender Equality Research to review whether policies in the workplace are family friendly and aid the progression of women. The series of reports identified that the main barriers holding women back are tensions between working and caring for a family, biases around pay and promotions, negativity surrounding and a shortage of quality part-time work and difficult workplace cultures (i.e. sexism).

This blog dives a little deeper into the barriers identified in the research and ways to remove them.

Pay and promotions biases

Those in authority tend to promote individuals who most reflect themselves or try to replicate the characteristics of the person who previously held the position. This reflection can take many forms, including choosing someone who has taken the same career path or has the same leadership style. In situations like this, there tends to be a reliance on subjective judgements rather than objective indicators such as a person’s past performance. This might disadvantage women as women as less likely to possess or be seen to possess, the relevant characteristics of the archetypal candidate, as they may not embody a male centred persona (given more decision-makers are men than women).

From 2017 organisations with 250 or more employees must comply with regulations on gender pay gap reporting. The aim is to help organisations to monitor, understand the causes behind the pay gap and develop action plans to tackle any issues around pay. Due to the impact of the pandemic, the reporting date was extended from 31 March 2021 to 5 October 2021. However, it seems that one in four organisations have failed to submit their report. Failing to do so, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, with a court order, can require for the breach to be remedied and/or to issue a fine.

A solution: a more formal and transparent system should be implemented on what are the deciding factors/criteria for awarding a pay increase and promotion. This should be combined with mechanisms to ensure that these have oversight and put in place accountability measures. Many also argue for non-compliance with pay-gap reporting to have more severe and well-publicised consequences.

Difficult workplace cultures

When an organisation is male-dominated, women tend to feel isolated and in some cases this isolation leads to a lack of confidence, meant they are less likely to put themselves forward for more senior roles. In more hostile environments, it was reported a women’s competence was based on sexist assessments from co-workers or clients which ultimately affected the woman’s ability to progress. At the extreme end of these hostile environments, where sexual harassment was more commonplace, some women just exited the organisation when these situations became intolerable. Others adopted a mentality of acceptance as a price worth paying in these environments especially if there is a high chance to progress to more senior roles.

A solution: ACAS provides steps on how employers can prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers should be aiming to have a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment. Support should be given to anyone involved in a sexual harassment complaint. Also, provide training on how to recognise sexual harassment and provide ways on how to report it. Plus, putting in place robust policies and procedures for dealing with sexual harassment and handling complaints.

Caring for a family

42.3 hours per week is the average amount of hours worked by a full-time employee. Combine the fact that women perform 74% of the total childcare, and this curtails a mother’s ability to work longer hours, thus jeopardising their progression in the workplace and overall participation in the labour market. A prevailing organisational norm is equating constant availability and overwork as a sign of a committed worker. In many cases this norm did not stem from what was required to carry out the work, but from an ideology of what makes a committed worker.

A solution: be more creative and flexible with working hours, for example part-time, flexi-time, compressed workweeks, telecommuting and job sharing. It is also useful to provide personal resources such as training to supervisors and employees on how to support each other through these changes.

Part-time work

All employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service with their employer have the right to request flexible working. The data from the report shows that 41% of women work part-time compared to 13% of men. There has been some success with flexible working patterns such as job sharing, however, this is predominately being offered to high-skilled workers (managers, professionals and those in supervisory roles). Furthermore, full-time hours is seen as the norm, so working part-time or flexible hours can be viewed as exhibiting a lack of commitment or being unprofessional, therefore potentially derailing the future progression of an individual’s career. Additionally, there seems to be an implementation gap when organisations have policies about providing flexible working but do not have written procedures to assist if it is requested. This indicates that most requests are being dealt with on a case by case basis, leaving a huge scope for managerial discretion.

A solution: organisations need to implement robust flexible working procedures and guidance, and train managers on how to manage part-time workers from the initial request through to implementation. Furthermore, flexible working should be promoted within corporate culture more widely and more positively, at all levels, so it is normalised as a feature of the modern workplace.

If you have any questions about equality and diversity or assistance implementing/reviewing these policies in your workplace, contact our employment experts on 0808 252 5231 and we will be happy to help.

The author of this blog article is Xania Scarlett, a Legal assistant in the Employment Law team. 

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