On Tuesday 27 November 2018, the Industry and Parliament Trust, in partnership with Lancaster University, hosted an event that considered issues related to ‘Decreasing Gender Inequalities in the UK Workforce’ held in the House of Commons, which was chaired by Lesley Giles, Director of the Work Foundation. Providing their expert knowledge were guest speakers Professor Claire Leitch, Professor of Entrepreneurial Leadership, Lancaster University; Dr Valerie Stead, Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Management, Lancaster University and Anna Haynes, Regional HR Services Manager, Caterpillar UK Ltd.
The discussion was attended by representatives from both the House of Commons and House of Lords, and from a wide variety of sectors from business and industry.
An inclusive workforce is one of the key pillars of the UK’s Industrial Strategy announced in 2017. Organisations are learning that diversity at all levels leads to new ways of thinking, increasing challenge and improved innovation. Diverse teams are more representative of the world we live in today and can provide greater insight into what customers need and want. Further, more diverse executive boards can lead to higher returns on equity.
UK workplace statistics, however, do not match these benefits: progress in addressing inequality remains slow irrespective of the recognition that inclusivity makes good business sense. On average, women are paid 9.7% less than men, with men making up the majority of higher-paid jobs. Women occupy 73% of all the junior roles in the labour market, with only 32% of director roles held by women. Compared to men, women are four times more likely to have given up work because of multiple caring responsibilities. UCAS reports that a third more women now take a degree at 18 than men, and an increasing number are studying STEM subjects – yet women’s level of achievement slows once they enter the workplace. Discussion at the event reiterated the complexity and overlap of these issues.
Managers and executives are confronted with a number of challenging gender gaps. These include the gender pay gap, that is, the difference in average earnings between women and men, the lack of women in the leadership pipeline, and the poor take-up of family-based policies. All of these are interwoven and contribute to the policy-practice gap, which explains how the development of national and organisational policies and practices intended to be fair and ‘gender neutral’ fail to take account of gendered social assumptions. This gap results in limited take-up and ineffective impact of policy and can advantage or disadvantage women’s and men’s everyday practices at work. These insights contributed to a lively discussion about how these gaps come about and how organisations are working to resolve them. Points raised included how women in middle management positions often have less social capital and less access to resources, such as knowledge and influence, which impacts on their career progression.
Finally, the ways in which organisations might address the policy-practice gap was explored. A number of participants considered the importance of reducing unconscious biases and cultural assumptions. Strategies highlighted included ensuring diverse shortlists of candidates for jobs and attention to inclusive language in recruitment advertising. An important area raised was the need for more targeted information relating to flexible working and its financial benefits for the organisation. It was noted that employees can find it difficult to take up family-based policies due to concerns about the impact on career progression and loss of income. Participants suggested this might be addressed with improved polices to address parental leave and familial responsibilities. A critical point made was how the policy-practice gap is not just a woman’s issue as it affects both women’s and men’s careers, experiences and contributions to the workplace and society more broadly. While gender inequality is receiving greater attention and improvements have been made towards more ensuring a more inclusive workforce in the UK, many efforts are still needed to reduce these gaps.
Words by Professor Claire Leitch, Professor of Entrepreneurial Leadership, Lancaster University and Dr Valerie Stead, Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Management, Lancaster University