Does International Women’s Day hold any relevance?

By Chris Parke
March 4, 2010

Chris Parke -Chris Parke is managing director at Talking Talent. The opinions expressed are his own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.-

As we celebrate International Women’s Day’s 99th anniversary, we should also be asking ourselves – does it hold any relevance anymore? I would argue that it does. Although gender equality has progressed in leaps and bounds over the decades, there are still plenty of global issues to tackle. Have we really found the holy grail of complete gender equality? Certainly not, and, although there is much to be said for the progress we have made, there are noticeable ‘cracks’ appearing. And the harder people look, the bigger they seem to get.

In the UK, we find the generations coming into the workplace now have little concept of the inequality faced by generations past. It is the male population who are fighting to achieve the same results as their female peers at an educational level. However, despite the fact that we are recruiting more female graduates than ever there still seems to be a paucity of women at senior levels, so why is this?

When talented young women finally enter the workplace, it can often be a shock to find previously un-considered and unconscious barriers still in operation. Despite the visible initiatives to support women reaching senior levels, we still find that only 12 percent of board members on the FTSE100 are female, and Legal Week recently unveiled that less than 20 percent of partners at the country’s 30 largest law firms were female (despite 60 percent of graduate intake being female).

To add to this, research in 2009 by the Equality of Human Rights Commission (EHRC) uncovered a huge pay gap in the finance industry where there is 39 percent gap in annual basic pay between women and men. Even today there are controversial statistics about the UK government, showing that the proportion of board seats occupied by women on public bodies fell to 32.6 percent last year – compared with 37.5 percent in 2004.

It is perhaps unfortunate that there is a need for programs to specifically support women reaching their highest potential or for an IWD. But the evidence is clear; in the workplace there are still barriers for women and we need to examine where these exist and how businesses and women can overcome them. My view is that the barriers are often subtle, invisible and implicit.

They are a result of unconscious biases that we all have, both men and women. Most of our organisations have for many decades been led by, and career structures designed around, men – and predominantly white European men to boot. Our societal stereotypes historically have driven biases around roles between men and women at home and work.

Commercially it makes sense for businesses to retain their female talent. In its Shaping a Fairer Future report, the Women and Work Commission said that increasing women’s participation in the labour market is estimated to be worth between 15 billion pounds and 23 billion pounds to the UK economy; and companies can save on recruitment and other indirect costs related to replacing an employee, which will naturally increase the more senior the position. Not only are they retaining key talent and experienced individuals, they are making a difference to the bottom line.

To do this, there are several measures that can be put in place, such as increasing the visibility of role models and providing effective support around maternity leave. To navigate a career in male dominated environments, whilst remaining authentic to their values and style, can sometimes be daunting for women, but these types of initiatives can help them overcome self-limiting beliefs and show others coming up through the ranks what is achievable.

Shifting unconscious and systemic biases means creating change at a cultural level, whether this is socially at national levels or at a company level. As the younger generations move up, they will expect a far more egalitarian society, we know that, but we should be helping to make this a reality for women now. IWD helps us celebrate the progress we make, challenge whether we feel that this is enough and acts as a reminder to not be complacent in pushing change forward.


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