Do you remember that time - I think it was about the 7th of May 1995 - when we thought we no longer needed feminism? Some unholy combination of Margaret Thatcher and the Spice Girls convinced us that the struggle for women’s rights had been completed. Done. Finito. Gender equality: achieved.
Only it turns out that’s a bit like saying racism is over or ableism is no longer a thing. And like those and other prejudices, it’s not just a problem of individuals, it’s an issue of institutions.
The struggle for gender equality also can not be divorced from the struggle for other types of equality. It will come as no great shock that the data shows that women who are part of another diverse group are consistently worse off than cis white able-bodied straight women.
For International Women’s Day 2021 we’ve done a deep dive into the stats around women in the workplace. Number four will surprise you! (But, like, it actually will.)
We’ve also taken a look at some of the things employers can do to correct these problems.
1. A quarter of women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their career. (Women in the Workplace 2020 - McKinsey)
Before 2020, women and men left their jobs at roughly the same rate. A 2017 study by McKinsey found that men were just as likely as women to say they planned to leave to focus on family - and for both men and women that was at the low low rate of 2%.
The pandemic response - months of lockdown, working from home and homeschooling - has flipped that on its head. According to McKinsey, women are now 1.3 times more likely to be considering leaving the workforce than men: a worst case scenario could see 2 million women in the US leaving the workforce, including 100,000 at senior leadership level.
The reasons for this differ in different groups: working mothers tend to be juggling household and caring responsibilities in addition to work - and may be feeling judged by their colleagues because of that; women in senior positions cite burnout as the main reason and say they feel obligated to be available at all hours; and Black women are more likely than women and men overall to feel that they can’t bring their whole selves to work.
2. Black women are 3 times more likely than non-Black women to have reported the death of a loved one as a recent challenge. (Women in the Workplace 2020 - McKinsey)
This aligns with research showing that Black people in the United States are 3.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.
Apart from exposing inequalities around health, this ties into Black women feeling unable to take their whole self to work: Black women are less likely than women overall to report that their manager has taken steps to ensure their work-life needs are met and are less likely than their white colleagues to report having strong allies at work.
More generally women of colour are more likely to have encountered a non-supportive work environment.
Although 60% of employees consider themselves allies of women of colour at work, few take consistent action.
And more than half of women of colour say that workplace culture has been a challenge to their career progression.
3. Women spent two-thirds more time on childcare than men did during the first lockdown. (Parenting in Lockdown - Office of National Statistics)
On average, mums of children under 18 were doing three hours and 18 minutes of childcare; dads were doing two.
Among parents of primary school children the amount of hours spent on childcare is even higher: mums do five hours a day; dads, er, still two.
For obvious reasons, this has a huge impact on their ability to do their job, particularly if they are required to be available for the 9 to 5.
Previously, working mums were sometimes described as “working a double shift” - doing their actual day job and then coming home to the unpaid labour of childcare and household work.
Now, some are describing this as a “double double shift”.
4. Less than 1 in 10 people think that a mother with a preschool aged child should work full-time. (British Social Attitudes 36)
In 2018 a third of people thought that if a husband and wife have a child under school age, the dad should work full-time and the mum part-time. Almost 20% thought the wife should stay home and the husband should work full-time.
All the options that involved the wife working full-time received less than 10% support - and options that also had the husband working part-time or staying at home received less than 0.5% support.
However, there is some hope. Attitudes in 2018 had shifted significantly since the previous study in 2012: the number of people who said they were unable to choose increased by 11% to almost one-third of respondents, suggesting that people are increasingly realising that the situation may require more context (or are just becoming less judgey).
5. The average pension pot for a 65 year old woman is £35,800. That’s one-fifth of the average pension pot for a man of the same age. (Insuring Women’s Futures)
And you really, really don’t want to be a divorced woman (from a pension perspective certainly): their pension pot is, on average, a mere £9,000.
There’s a whole range of societal factors at play here, from the gender pay gap to the “motherhood penalty”.
To get a real sense of the potential consequences of this, just watch this and weep for hypothetical Helen.
6. More than 78% of those who have lost their jobs since the crisis began are women. (Women and Work All-Party Parliamentary Group Annual Report 2020)
Because of the impact on sectors like leisure and hospitality, which have disproportionately high numbers of women, some have dubbed the current economic crisis a “shecession”.
In addition, pregnant women and new mothers are more likely to have been pushed towards furlough or redundancies: 1 in 4 report such discriminatory behaviour.
7. For every 100 men promoted to an entry-level management positions, only 85 women are. (Women in the Workplace 2020 - McKinsey)
This is sometimes referred to as the “broken rung” in the ladder and a key reason why there are far fewer women at C-suite level than men: they simply aren’t being promoted at entry level, meaning that women make up less than 4 out of 10 managers.
The situation is much worse for women of colour. For every 100 men promoted to manager, there are only 71 Latinas and 58 Black women.
What leaders can do
Clearly there’s a lot to unpack here. But although these may seem like a range of different problems certain patterns come up again and again.
Even two decades into the 21st century, the bulk of caring responsibilities and housework still falls on women.
While we might wish it otherwise, employers and managers must deal with the reality of the world.
Flexible working, both in terms of location and working hours, can make a real difference to working mothers.
Although many companies have adopted such policies in the wake of the pandemic or increased the amount of parental leave available, there may be uncertainty over how long it will last or problems with internal communications which mean that working parents may not be aware of the options open to them.
For more senior women in particular, burnout has become a problem while working from home, as they may feel the expectation to be available at all hours.
Companies can help by providing guidelines around working remotely and giving employees the “right to disconnect”, as encouraging good practice around out-of-hours emailing.
Bringing your whole self to work
Even before the pandemic, women of colour were more likely to report that they could not bring their whole selves to work - and this was reflected in people of colour being more likely to leave their job.
Companies should address specific problems faced by particular groups - for example, Black women - by firstly acknowledging the problems head on and making a commitment to addressing them.
They should then work to create a culture where inclusive behaviour is encouraged.
Similarly, support like financial education workshops for employees should look at things in context, not just focusing on money. We know that life circumstances and relationships have a huge impact on things like pension plans and employers should be alert to key times in employees’ lives that have an impact on their financial wellbeing.
The “broken rung” where fewer women are promoted to entry level management positions has a huge impact across the organisation.
Companies need to take a long hard look at their criteria for promotion and consider how they may be putting obstacles in the way of women’s advancement.
Part of this is having a clearer structure for how people progress up the corporate ladder so that people are promoted on an objective, not subjective measure of skills. At Desana we are attempting to do this through our progression framework - although, of course, this is a constant work in progress to ensure it’s properly reflecting the achievements of team members.
It’s also important to consider ways that company culture may be actively working against women. This doesn’t have to mean a boys’ club - it can be something as subtle as gender bias in your job descriptions.
The fewer women that are promoted to entry-level management, the smaller the pool to draw on when advancing women to the highest levels of the organisation.
This has a huge impact on a company’s financial success: company profits and share performance can be almost 50% higher when there is good representation of women at the highest level of management.
It also has a negative impact on other diversity and inclusion initiatives. Women at senior level are more likely to promote and encourage diversity initiatives.
Supporting women in the workplace therefore doesn’t just improve things for women - it makes them better for everyone and works towards building a future workplace that is equitable and welcoming to all.