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In time for International Women’s Day, global recruiter Robert Walters has released a fascinating survey on gender trends in the workplace. I say “fascinating” because it is one of the most elucidating of recent in highlighting internal and external barriers to female advancement.

The data is particularly relevant given this week’s announcement on the gender pay gap. This is a subject of increasing controversy in our societal debates, as progressives tend to misdiagnose it and others doubt its existence at all (given that it’s illegal to pay men and women differently). The data clearly shows, however, that the difference in average hourly earnings for men and women has increased, and is most pronounced in the education sector. Finance and insurance firms are not far behind, with HSBC having a gender pay gap of 47 per cent.

While I’m certainly not one to cry about the “patriarchy”, nor a fan of quotas, or any other form of female-pitying intervention to alleviate these margins, they are food for thought at the very least – particularly as education is dominated by women, so it begs the question of why exactly they are not financially excelling there.

What’s clear is that family commitments are one of the main barriers to progression. A quarter of working mums do not return to their same employer after becoming a parent, and over half felt disadvantaged at work because they’d had kids. This chimes with research showing that childcare as well as looking after older parents, can negatively impact on a woman’s salary. Their absence makes them less obvious for promotions, or they take on flexible part-time roles (which are the lowest paid), or they drop out of employment all together.

It’s important that we ask whether there’s more that workplaces can do to improve the situation. The research shows that 84 per cent of working mums would like the option to work from home, although only a third of employers do this, and 43 per cent would like the opportunity to job share (similarly, only 12 per cent of employers offer this.)

Correcting these imbalances may also require something of an attitudinal shift, as society still expects women to take on the majority of childcare. While many families are happy with this arrangement, and many women see it as their own choice, this sentiment is not universal, and we must ensure mothers do not feel overly pressured (versus fathers) to be the main carer.

On the other hand, there are other parts of the report which demonstrate that it’s within women’s own power to end the gender pay gap, with one of the most simple ways being to ask for more money. The study shows that men are 23 per cent more likely to negotiate a pay rise, and 57 per cent of women have never attempted to, so it’s unsurprising we are seeing big disparities.

A significant number of women worryingly seem to think the odds are stacked against them, with 41 per cent saying that opportunities had not been made available to them because of their gender. One wonders if these perceptions are correct? My own view is that they have been absorbed from societal messaging – the liberal media constantly gives women the impression the patriarchy is out to get them at work.

Overall, a huge barrier seems to be confidence, as many women blamed this for not progressing, and others say that they want more support and training opportunities. Perhaps this will inspire more organisations to enhance their training programmes, or it might highlight that women are too hopeful about interventions – when they simply need to push themselves forward. This is very much the hypothesis of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which encouraged women to be more proactive as employees, asking for opportunities instead of waiting for them.

The truth is that the conditions for women have never been so favourable in modern workplaces, and many male-dominated industries are desperate to have more of us – science, tech, politics, for starters. Yes there are areas for improvement, but this research demonstrates that many of the solutions are in women’s hands.

6 comments for: What does the data say on women’s advancement in the workplace?

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