Has gender equality happened?

Written by
Sarah-Jane Butler

14 Jan 2016

14 Jan 2016 • by Sarah-Jane Butler

All women in Britain over the age of 21 finally received the right to vote in 1928. This historic milestone, which we now take for granted, was only reached after women, frustrated by their social and economic situation worked together to fight the inequality of the political system.

This political leap for women kind was followed during the 20th century eventually by the Equal Pay 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, again each as a result of women working together as the strikes by women at the Ford car factory in Dagenham proved.

However despite these achievements, progress in eliminating gender inequalities remains slow. Women still participate less, are overrepresented in lower paid sectors and bear a disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work. Lack of childcare and other work life balance options continue to constrain their employment. And unfortunately notwithstanding political gains, the level of sexism and discrimination, unconscious or conscious, within the workplace is still unacceptably high. Unbelievably it took until the 1970’s before the Ministry of Defence stopped their practice of forcing women to give up their jobs when they married and they weren’t alone. It would also not take very long to find businesses in 2015 that may in an honest moment admit that this isn’t such a bad idea.

In some case gender bias is unconscious and is a product of social and cultural ‘norms’. Organisations are not actively avoiding hiring and promoting women because they are women but it is happening anyway. There are countless stories of managers out there who actively avoid hiring or promoting female candidates in an age bracket that are likely to have babies because maternity leave is inconvenient to them yet the same managers view young fathers as great candidates because they have the motivation of a young family to support. By the way these managers aren’t always male. Women can equally be biased against their own sex.

And yet despite these prehistoric attitudes, there have been numerous studies including those by McKinsey, Thomson Reuters, and Leeds University Business School that clearly demonstrate women on boards are good for business. Those businesses studied showed better performance and greater stability in periods of economic volatility when women were well represented at board level and yet only 6.1% of FTSE 100 executive positions are held by women and only 3% of board chairpersons are female. Furthermore only 22% of MPs and 20% of university professors are women.

From an early age girls are outperforming boys. 63.6% of girls earn 5 GCSE’s grade C or above (including English and Maths) compared to 54.2% of boys and 55% of university graduates are women so why as they progress through their careers is the gender see-saw shifting so dramatically. The reality is fundamentally men can’t have babies and a large proportion of women will have one or more periods of maternity leave during their careers but does this make them less valuable as employees or less capable for that matter? Studies have shown repeatedly that the answer is no but clearly, to many employers, the answer is yes.

Some organisations, such as Citibank, EY and the Ministry of Justice[1], are leading the charge in recognising that women, married, single, mothers or otherwise, have a huge amount to offer their workforce but unfortunately there are still many with just the opposite view.  Governments have introduced a raft of legislation over the last couple of decades aimed at reducing the inequality in the workplace and while there has been progress the inequality and bias still persists.  It had been hoped that the introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) in April 2015 would have made a difference but despite being a fabulous idea in theory, the take up has been negligible and actually nil within SME and lower paid sectors. In reality men have seen what has happened to their female colleagues who have taken maternity leave and most are unwilling to risk their own careers and who can blame them? There also just isn’t the cultural impetus for change, especially when SPL is paid at such a low rate.

So once again we need women to take control and fight for change. Our daughters currently progressing through the educational system need their own suffragettes to avoid facing future discrimination and unfair treatment in the workplace due to being pregnant or being a mother. Our sons need educating that women are their equals to work with not against. Our companies need to take a long hard look at the reality that is happening within their four walls and actively work towards enhancing female participation within their workforces. The loss of talent and experience only costs companies more in the long run and throws our so-called progressive society back into Dickensian times.  Almost a century ago, women fought for and achieved a huge political change. Now it’s time for us to fight for a societal change.

“We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half.” Emmeline Pankhurst, “The Suffragette: The History of the Women's Militant Suffrage Movement


[1] http://www.topemployersforworkingfamilies.org.uk/index.php/news/entry/top-employers-for-working-families-the-annual-list-is-out