I was recently invited to join a panel at Womanthology‘s inaugural Thought Leaders event. Although the topics of discussion were quite wide-ranging, action points from across all sectors and types of organisation emerged. Although the legal foundations of gender diversity are slow to develop, change is being driven by an ever expanding group of practical activists and supporters from the broadest range of communities.
Moving away from Dickensian stereotypes
The legal profession has been working hard on addressing its gender balance issues for many years. With 60% of new entrants to the profession being female, law offices are less like the Dickensian stereotype of Bleak House. As an employment solicitor and a partner, it’s important to see our firms embody best practice based upon transparent rules, fairness and equality stretching from the recruitment process and throughout professional development and promotion.
Rewards for organisations who disrupt the status quo
It was a pleasure to be involved with the Womanthology event where best practice was seen as a starting point by so many in attendance. Although many organisations will happily opt to do merely what they are required by law, it is those who are disrupting the status quo and pushing their own boundaries who are being rewarded the most.
It’s no secret that a diverse workforce is a commercial advantage and a working environment in which we are challenged by a broad range of diverse ideas makes us stronger. Similarly, the programmes, drivers and schemes that are being developed across a broad range of organisations, both in the public and private sectors, are rightly celebrated and shared.
Although my job is often to advise, I also have the opportunity to guide and encourage clients and this is where I can provide additional value.
Addressing gender balance – every sector and organisation is different
When it comes to addressing the gender balance, every sector and organisation is different; what is required to remedy any imbalance will also differ, which makes it difficult to set expectations. The law has been slow to develop in this area.
Despite having equal pay legislation and sex discrimination laws in place since the 1970s, societal change has not followed. If change within working practices and gender stereotyping is needed, alongside education and greater awareness of opportunities available to girls and boys from a young age, legal challenges are bound to be encountered, perhaps even encouraged.
One of, if not the biggest casualties of the Employment Tribunal fee-paying regime (that existed from 2013 until it was declared unlawful earlier this year) was the number of sex discrimination claims brought, which fell by up to 87% on the introduction of fees. Although this shone a light on the importance of raising workplace concerns, the number of claims being made has not yet recovered and employers are not always held to account when discrimination takes place.
A further opportunity for employers to set an example is in relation to parental leave. It remains commonplace for women to be the primary carers for children; this may be for financial reasons, or even as a result of societal expectations.
In spite of ‘shared parental leave’ entitlements being introduced to the UK in 2015, relatively few families have made the most of the opportunity. This may be due to the fact that the female partner has to, in effect, give up a share of what would otherwise be her maternity leave period.
Unlike the popular Scandinavian model, there is no longer a right for a father to have extended parental leave of his own accord, it must be shared. It follows that there is no penalty to a man who does not partake in any shared leave. Of course, there is no reason why employers cannot enhance what is lawfully required, but if there is to be genuine equality between parents after childbirth, the law will have to force such change.
Gender pay gap reporting
As many employers will be aware, April 2018 sees the first deadline for employers of over 250 people to report on the organisation’s gender pay gap. Although this will only cover 1% of businesses in the UK, it will provide an insightful snapshot of how the UK is faring against its international counterparts. It should also incentivise those larger organisations who are typically better funded to recognise any gender inequality and take steps to address it.
Such information will be vital too for SMEs who will seek to work with large organisations and learn from them. It is readily expected that in the future reporting will extend out to SMEs, albeit voluntarily, and beyond gender pay issues. Social mobility, BAME and sexual orientation are all aspects of community that may benefit from greater transparency and focused attention in future.
Tangible opportunity for organisations across every sector to make a difference
The Womanthology speakers and audience brought together not only those who are making a real difference in their own organisations, but additionally having an impact on a much wider basis. Transformations relating to gender balance within both industry and society at large cannot and will not happen overnight, yet we can no longer afford to sit by and wait for change to happen of its own accord.
In the midst of the current conversations around sexual harassment and gender bias that have exploded in recent weeks, there is a tangible opportunity for all organisations across every sector to make a difference and a willingness for them to do so more than ever before. Let’s not waste that opportunity.