Liz Walker, Commercial Director at Distinctly, reflects on the successes and failures for women on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
Like any year, 2019 has been a mixture of successes and failures for women’s rights. This is true whether we are talking about the rights of women in employment, women in the wider UK, or for women worldwide. One of the truly positive notes to come from the December 2019 Westminster election was that this Parliament has the most female MPs in history, and for the first time, more than a third of MPs are women. On the other hand, women at intersections with other minority groups, for instance LGBT women or women with disabilities, are facing a more hostile working and living environment than ever before. For International Women’s Day 2020, while we need to celebrate the great strides that have been made, we must also discuss the room for improvement that remains.
Highest proportion of women in work ever
One of the most positive statistics this year was that in August, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced that the number of women in employment was at its highest level in history, at 15.46 million. This number has continued to rise into early 2020, with a new record already established at 15.61 million women in employment, equating to 72.4% of the women’s labour market. This continuing growth in women’s employment highlights that employers are becoming far better at hiring female candidates. Given that this growth in women in employment is credited with the growth in the UK economy that has occurred since 2012, this is a fantastic note of positivity.
Rise in working mothers
A major driving factor behind the growth of women in employment is that mothers are now far more likely to continue working, with approximately 72% of working-age mothers now remaining in paid work. While there is still a tendency for women who are parents to move from full-time to part-time work, this is still a positive trend, and has helped lead to a massive rise in the number of dual-earning families. This is believed to have been driven by a rise in flexible working opportunities.
1 in 3 FTSE 100 directors are now women
For the first time in history, 1 in 3 individuals on the boards of FTSE 100 companies are women. While this number falls behind target for the wider FTSE 350, this is still a fantastic growth given that only a decade ago women made up only 12.5% of FTSE 100 board members. With a growth in women in leadership roles, we can expect changes in wider workplace culture to continue at an ever accelerating rate. However, we still need to bear in mind that this is only the start of the change that is needed. The report also stresses the fact that some roles, such as finance directors, are still well below the 33% target, showing there is still significant room for improvement.
Statistics fail to show underlying problems
Unfortunately, while there are some very positive statistics for 2019, they fail to account for some underlying structural problems. First, women are still expected to be the primary provider of childcare, carrying out 60% more unpaid work than men, especially in terms of childcare provision. This is partly influenced by the fact that Shared Parental Leave, designed to allow parents to split the workload of looking after their newborn between them, has seen abysmal uptake. Only 9,200 new parents used the scheme in 2017/18, which was just over 1% of those eligible, highlighting the fact that cultural changes around childcare are far from complete. This has certainly not been helped by the fact that the cost of childcare for children under 2 has risen by 5%, meaning that in attempting to return to work, many women would actually be incurring a financial cost.
Similar socio-cultural issues can be seen elsewhere — for instance, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), women are still expected to undertake the majority of housework. This is believed to be a major factor behind many parents not taking up full-time roles when they return to work, even where it has a major impact on their pay. These underlying cultural problems are being slowly eroded, but they are still impacting the ability of working women to work in the roles they would like to, due at least in part to the need to balance their responsibilities as primary caregiver to their children against pursuing their careers.
Women are still facing pay-based discrimination, even in government
Mandatory gender pay gap reporting has now existed for companies with 250 employees and above for three years. Despite this fact, women are still routinely being paid less than their male colleagues, with little change to the 11% average pay difference seen over the past two years. Even women employed directly by the government, who purport to be looking to end discrimination against women, are failing to be paid an equal wage for the work they do. While 13 of the 18 government departments large enough to conduct reporting had managed to decrease their gender pay gap, one saw no change, and the remaining four saw an increase. Of the 18 departments, only one, the Department for Work and Pensions, had no reported gender pay gap. This raises serious questions about how the government could possibly hope to succeed in changing the private sector pay gap when it is busy failing its female employees.
Women in niche industries are still being failed by employers
Across the STEM and creative industries, women are still being left behind. While there are definitely positives, such as the number of women engineers doubling in the past decade, and 1 million women now working in STEM occupations, this shift has not been occurring consistently. In some sectors within STEM, women have actually dropped as a percentage of the workforce despite increased numbers, due to an even higher number of men entering these fields. A good example of this is Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) managers, where despite growing every year since 2015, the number of women in SET has dropped heavily as a percentage.
In fact, between June 2018 and June 2019, over 300,000 men entered STEM employment, compared with only 150,000 women. With men thus offering an even larger proportion of the overall talent pool, they are statistically more likely to receive promotions and pay rises, further contributing to the marginalisation of women in the STEM workforce.
This same struggle can be seen in the creative industries. Despite a 30.6% growth in the creative industries between 2011 and 2018, women still make up only 37% of the employees, with a growth rate of under 3% in the past 6 years. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of women in creative fields actually dropped, despite overall growth. Clearly, despite the fact that the picture across the wider workforce looks so positive, for women in STEM or the creative industries, there is a lot of work still to be done. As two major growth industries in the UK for the past decade, continued domination of these fields by men implies that — without major changes — gender imbalance in the UK economy is likely to persist for a long time.
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