Gender equality in the workplace - how far have we come?

Today is International Women's Day, promoted as “a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women”.  It is an opportunity to look back at how far we have come on the gender equality journey, and to consider what we, as a society, need to do next to complete that journey.

As a female partner in MacRoberts, and an employment lawyer, this naturally leads me to reflect on these issues in the context of the workplace and the legal profession in Scotland.

As it happens, this year also marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time. Reflecting on this, 100 years is relatively recent history and it is easy to forget how far we have come since then. Both my grandmothers were born around 1919. Both were strong, intelligent and articulate women, yet they never had the opportunities I have had to pursue a professional career. It would not have been possible for them to go to university, let alone develop a career as a lawyer and become a partner in a law firm. It was not an option for them, largely due to their gender.

In more recent history, as a young girl, I recall conversations with my mother where she recounted that the expectation for her future was that she would get married, have children and not work. When you consider this, there is no doubt that things have changed significantly in the last 100 years, and as their daughter and granddaughter, I am testament to that change.

The change in the legal profession is also considerable. Like me, there are now many other female partners in the UK’s leading law firms. We have a female president of the Law Society of Scotland. Last year we had a Supreme Court (Scotland’s highest court) with the first ever female majority. Significantly, Lady Hale was recently appointed as the first woman President of UK Supreme Court. 

In the workplace in Scotland generally, there are positive signs of change. The PWC’s Women in Work Index, published this month, reveals that the UK has improved its position slightly, moving from the 14th to the 13th position on the Index. Scotland, the South West and Wales are the top performing UK regions in the regional index, with Scotland ranking first. The gender pay gap in the UK has also dropped from around 27% in 1997 to 18.4% in April 2017.

A myriad of factors have contributed to this change but new workplace laws have played a significant part. They have enabled women to participate in the workplace on a more equal footing.  Changes include laws on equal pay, sex, pregnancy and maternity discrimination, rights of part-time workers not to be subjected to less favourable treatment, the right to request flexible working, laws on maternity leave and pay, time off to care for dependants, time off for ante-natal appointments, laws on breastfeeding, paternity leave and pay, shared parental leave and others. 

The most recent workplace development has been the introduction of Gender Pay Gap reporting for private organisations with 250 or more employees. Still in its infancy, this new obligation does appear to be paving the way for further change. For example, it has been reported that over half of those who reported a gender pay gap of over 20% have developed a strategy to reduce it.  With the next set of figures requiring to be published in April 2019, we will be better able to assess what progress is being made in this.

Whilst there is cause to pause to recognise and celebrate the significant progress which has been made, there is equally no time for complacency. There is no doubt that gender inequality still exists and is a significant global issue. #BalanceforBetter is needed. A gender pay gap of 18.4% is not acceptable. 

As a society there is a moral imperative to ensure change in this area. However, there are also compelling economic benefits in working towards achieving gender equality. For example, one source estimates that bridging the gender pay gap in work has the potential to create an extra £150 billion on top of business-as-usual GDP forecasts in 2025, and could translate into 840,000 additional female employees.  However, whatever statistics reviewed, the message is clear - there is an economic advantage in addressing these issues and that advantage is significant. 

Change is happening, there are political and social drivers to ensure it does. My step-daughter is 9 and tells me she wants to be an engineer when she is older. A role which once would have been considered the domain of men is no longer viewed by young people in that way. I suspect my grandmothers would have been intrigued by this. I hope that in the future at my age, my stepdaughter has cause to reflect on international women’s day and that she will be able to recount the positive steps forward to achieving gender equality that my generation have taken.  I hope she experiences #balanceforbetter in her working life. 

Latest updates from @MacRoberts