International Women's Day: Challenging gender inequality in the workplace & beyond

‘We all move forward when we recognise how resilient and striking the women around us are.’
Rupi Kaur (Author, Milk and Honey)

As a Scottish Indian Punjabi woman, I am guided by my own lived experience and by the inspirational women around me – my mum, late grans, aunties, cousins and friends. I realised the importance of representation from a young age and how important it is to document and celebrate our lives and achievements. Women have transformed, and continue to transform, the world socially, politically and culturally. International Women’s Day (IWD) is a chance for us all to recognise these incredible contributions and reflect on how far we have come.

However, whilst great progress has been made to redress gender inequality, IWD also provides an opportunity to acknowledge that there’s still lots to do. The IWD website asks ‘How will you help forge a gender equal world?’ and this year’s theme – #ChoosetoChallenge – reminds us all to continuously commit to women’s equality and take necessary actions wherever we can.

Bearing this in mind, I ‘choose to challenge’ the following:

1. Stereotypes

We can all effect change on a daily basis, one step at a time. This can be in simple ways such as the way we act, the decisions we take and the way we talk. In doing so, we can create a ripple effect that benefits everyone.

Language is a fairly simple one to start with. Let’s stop to think about whether the phrases and words we use are ‘gendered’. Words such as ‘competitive’, ‘ambitious’ and ‘decisive’ are usually associated with male stereotypes, while words such as ‘support’, ‘connect’ and ‘understand’ are associated with female stereotypes. Research suggests that male-orientated job descriptions can actively dissuade women from applying for jobs.

Being more thoughtful about what is included in job adverts and giving gender coded words an equal weighting in job descriptions is a fairly easy way of effecting change. I remind myself that change doesn’t always have to be big!

2. Unconscious bias

Why are we not seeing more women in leadership positions and boards? This remains an issue – even in sectors where the workforce is evenly split, or in some cases (such as in the legal sector) where there are more women at entry level.

Realising and accepting we all have bias is the first step in managing this. Gender stereotypes are everywhere – in our language as I mention above, and our perceptions of women.
For example, an assertive and forthright woman may be deemed as ‘bossy’. And no one wants a bossy leader, right? So, women who are more than capable of being leaders could potentially be restricted from reaching leadership positions in this way. Yet, we are unlikely to refer to a man in the same way. Why?

Challenging prejudice when we hear it is absolutely vital to ensuring gender equality. In doing so, we can encourage the progression of women to the top and ensure there are role models and mentors who can inspire other women to do the same. Another move towards gender equality!

3. ‘Cultural norms’

Shared parental leave (SPL) gives more choice in how two parents can care for their child by splitting 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of statutory pay between them. However, despite its introduction as a more equal and flexible leave opportunity, the reality is that not many parents choose to take this up.

Research carried out by the University of Birmingham a few years ago showed that one of the key elements resulting in the low take-up of SPL was societal expectations – namely that cultural norms in the UK still appear to persist which suggest that mothers should be the primary carers for their children. The knock on effect of this is that many women continue to do more childcare than men, making it more difficult for women to progress at work. This continues the gender inequality – which is a real shame as more fathers are in fact sharing the care of children and want more time to bond with a new baby.

Given that it could potentially help gender inequality, how can we encourage more parents to take SPL? If more employers challenged the ‘norm’, embraced SPL, explained it better, enhanced the pay and guided employees through it, perhaps the take up would increase. The benefits this would bring to business include happier employees (regardless of gender) who are more engaged and productive. It is also another step towards gender equality – the new mum doesn’t have to be the only parent taking time away from the workplace.

4. The impact of COVID-19

It would be remiss of me not to mention the impact of the pandemic on gender equality. According to McKinsey’s annual study of Women in the Workplace 2020, ‘the pressures of the pandemic are driving some employees – especially women – to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce’. Women seem to be suffering disproportionately.

Working mothers are especially at risk for stress, mental distress, and burnout as they struggle to balance jobs and family. Mothers are more likely than fathers to worry that their performance is being negatively judged due to their caregiving responsibilities. Women in senior leadership are more likely than men at that level to feel as though they are “always on.”

In addition, women are more likely to work in the sectors which have been hit badly by COVID-19 such as travel, retail and leisure, meaning they are more likely to have been placed on furlough.

While there is now light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines being rolled out, lockdowns slowly being lifted and schools going back, the reality is we are all still in this for a little while longer. Let’s do all that we can do to look after our employees, with their diverse experiences and capabilities, by challenging ourselves to continuously think of innovative ways to help and nurture them through this unprecedented time. If women start walking away from the workplace, the consequences will be huge.

It’s encouraging to see many Scottish firms, companies and organisations taking active steps to eradicate inequality by raising awareness about gender bias, implementing progressive workplace policies to enable greater flexibility, supporting more women to realise their full potential and become successful leaders, realising that a diverse workplace with a wide array of talent is vital for success. The changes in society towards the rights and opportunities for women have come about due to the efforts of many – both women and men. But we must all continue to challenge. There are still countless areas where progress is still to be made. Equal pay, creating and maintaining open, inclusive mindsets and cultures, diverse recruitment panels, mentoring schemes – the list is endless.

As the IWD website says:

‘A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. So let's all choose to challenge… Celebrate women's achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.’

And let’s do it every day. Not just on International Women’s Day.

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