February 2018 marks the centenary of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, which allowed women over the age of 30 years the right to vote in General Elections. The years and decades following this landmark achievement saw women revolutionise their place in society. The role of women shifted gradually from exclusively domestic and private concerns to far more prominent positions in public life.
The 20th century witnessed greater employment opportunities for women, improved access to higher education, the growth of feminism, and greater legal rights for women. Politically, women also made significant advances. In 1929, Margaret Bondfield made history when she became the first woman Cabinet Minister in the United Kingdom. Fifty years later, the country elected Margaret Thatcher as its first female Prime Minister.
Now, in the early years of the 21st century, girls are consistently outperforming their male peers in secondary education and more women than men receive a university education. Despite these advances, however, women have yet to achieve true equality with men in the workplace in terms of pay, status and opportunity.
2017 data from the Office for National Statistics suggest a gender pay gap of 9.1% (median) between male and female full-time workers in the UK. While this is down from 17.4% twenty years ago, it suggests that progress still needs to be made. Women continue to struggle to break through what Marilyn Loden described in 1978 as the ‘invisible glass ceiling’ into senior management. Indeed, in 2017, only 22.8% of board positions in FTSE 250 companies were held by women. Advances are being made in this regard, compared with previous years, but clearly, women have a long way to go to enjoy parity with their male counterparts.
Much of this inequality can be attributed to society’s understanding of gender and the roles directly, or indirectly, ascribed to women and men. Gender, as opposed to biological ‘sex’, is constructed socially and our understanding of it changes across time and according to culture. Sociologists have long recognised that girls and boys are socialised from an early age to assume certain roles. Boys are encouraged to participate in activities that foster leadership skills and innovation whereas girls tend to be pushed towards more emotional, passive and caring roles. These assumptions are likely to influence the career paths of both sexes and society’s view of what is considered ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ work.
Childrearing, the care of elderly relatives and unpaid domestic work are still carried out disproportionately by women, which results in women taking career breaks or being able to commit only to part-time employment. Women are also far more likely than men to experience casual sexism, sexual harassment or some form of discrimination in the workplace. All these factors automatically disadvantage women.
Gender stereotypes affect workplace relationships and career progression. Employers, therefore, need to be mindful of the challenges associated with gender issues and should identify and address unconscious biases, indirect discrimination or inappropriate behaviour that might exist in their workplace. Doing so will help ensure that the talents of your female staff are not overlooked or underused and that all staff can be supported to reach their potential in a culture of equality.
To help, we’ve recently uploaded our new ‘Gender in the Workplace’ pathway on the Development Zone, which explores a range of gender-related issues.