100 years of Women in leadership


Words by Rianna Fulham | Design by Adam Pettigrew

Words by Rianna Fulham

Design by Adam Pettigrew

One hundred years ago, an army of brave women overcame a history of political silencing. In 1918, women over 30 who were occupiers of property or married to occupiers were granted the right to vote in Britain – in part thanks to the women’s suffrage movement. Militancy, hunger strikes, imprisonment and martyrdom helped bring about the tenets of the suffragette campaign. As did less extreme methods by the suffragists. Their combined efforts lead to genuine democratic reform. And, a mere decade after the 1918 Act passed, women were granted fully equal voting rights with men.

There were further changes for women’s rights too. During the century that followed, the Employment Equality Act, the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act all came into law, specifically enhancing and protecting women’s rights in the workplace. However, legislation has not yet brought us a utopia where all genders are treated and paid equally. In fact, conversations about women today, most notably discussions surrounding sexual harassment and remuneration, show that there is still more work to do until true equality is reached.

Whilst the contributions of women aren’t limited to the workplace, professional life does provide a lens through which progress (or not) can be charted. To celebrate the centenary of women achieving the right to vote, HR Grapevine has collated several examples of good workplace practice – working examples that exhibit the same fervent activism that underwrote the campaigns to win female suffrage.

Women at the top

A factor repeatedly cited as hindering the levelling out of pay is a lack of women at the top. Whilst women have transcended many barriers, there’s still limited representation in the boardroom. Female representation at the top of the UK’s largest businesses is so minimal, that there are just seven female bosses in the FTSE100. In fact there are more men called John running FTSE companies than there are women!

Vicky Pryce, who sits on the Board of Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) and is the former Joint Head of the UK Government Economic Service, believes that what’s missing are senior female role models. She welcomes the idea of regulation - or better yet voluntary methods - to force firms to embrace a target for women in senior positions and then to make this public. The 30% Club, a campaign group designed to improve female representation in the Boardroom, has also been encouraging firms to embrace quotas. Since it launched in 2010, female representation figures on UK Boards has increased to 28.4% from 12.5%. Targets combined with measures such as mentoring programs and women’s networks can help to create stronger pipelines of women too.

However, as Pryce points out, businesses need to make the working environment a lot more accommodating of women. “Out with the long hours culture, after work socialising with clients, weekends playing golf while clinching the deal or seeing women as a costly risk,” she explains. “Instead, we need to promote flexible working, job sharing at senior levels, promotions during maternity leave, a programme for returnees and continued training for women.”

Equal pay

Just 50 years ago the 1970 Equal Pay Act was passed, prohibiting unequal pay and working conditions. The Act, according to academics, was the result of industrial action undertaken by women who worked at Ford’s Dagenham automotive factory. The action, in 1968, was started when a group of sewing machinists protested against inequal pay and a lack of recognition, prompting lobby groups such as the Women’s Liberation Movement to further push for ‘equal pay for equal work’.

Come 2018 and the gap between male and female earnings still remains. The national gender pay gap, based on full-time median hourly earnings, stands at 9.7%. When all workers, full and part-time, are included, the gap increases to 18.4% for median earnings. However, new gender pay gap reporting legislation aims to close this disparity by forcing certain businesses to go public about any pay discrepancies and outline how they will tackle them - obliging all public-sector and private companies with 250 staff or more to publicly disclose their gender pay gaps. Perhaps unsurprisingly, of the 10,014 employers that submitted their data, almost eight out of 10 pay men more than women. In no sector were women paid more than men. Regardless, the push for progress is underway.

Alongside this new Government legislation, some organisations are prioritising parity, even when no one is watching. One such firm is Weetabix. Stuart Branch, their Group HR and IT Director explains that their mean gender pay gap stood at 5.4% during 2016-17, which is much lower than the UK company average of 18.1%. He believes that reporting the gender pay gap is a positive move. “It will ensure transparency and make many companies relook at any potential biases within their organisation,” he explains.

The cereal firm has also been on a journey to ensure decisions are not made on gender prejudices. This means continuously examining their data and policies to make sure they are free from unconscious bias. “For example, where previously our working hours may have better suited some people than others, now we have flexible working hours,” Branch reveals.

Whilst Branch acknowledges that the gender pay gap is due to a variety of factors - for example, duties of care often fall on women meaning they’re more likely to be in part time work - one thing the Kettering-based firm is avoiding is ‘tokenism’ - hiring someone from an underrepresented group in order to claim better diversity. This means Weetabix are not actually trying to recruit more women. “What we’re trying to do is to make sure we get the very best recruit for the role and to ensure there is no unconscious bias in their appointment,” Branch concludes. By questioning and challenging these biases, HR can incite change, creating a fairer, more inclusive workplace.

Cultural change

Clearly a cultural shift is essential to make the workplace more conducive to equality. A Working Forward report found that just 77% of mothers say they have had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience at work. Just three years ago, an Irish firm unfairly dismissed a woman for being ‘sick for too long’ despite the fact she had suffered a miscarriage. In 2017, a recruitment manager at a law firm was selected for redundancy during maternity leave because she was the ‘easiest’ to get rid of. These examples aren’t so far away from the 1960s where women were routinely sacked when they got pregnant.

“As we celebrate the centenary of women's suffrage, it’s important we reflect on the progress we’ve made in creating a more equal world of work regardless of gender but there’s no denying we have more work to do. Whether that’s by reducing the gender pay gap or ensuring more equal representation at the top of business.”
Ann Pickering, HR Director at O2

Whilst there has been a gradual improvement in support for women, with maternity leave, flexible working and in some cases, help with childcare, management of working mothers isn’t yet perfect. Deborah Mattock, Director of HR, Marketing and International Relations at the University of Northampton, says that HR needs to create workplaces that are family friendly. One approach is to enable staff to work away from the office. Furthermore, she believes her experience as a mother shouldn’t be something kept outside of work. “It has influenced my leadership style and management skills,” she says. “This is more than just ensuring colleagues don’t miss sports days but removing barriers so women who have taken time away don’t lose ground in their careers.”

Another way organisations are finding ways to break down these barriers is through ‘returnships’ which have been gaining momentum in the corporate world. Ann Pickering, HR Director at O2, says their career returners programme “helps women back into work after a career break” adding that it’s vital that they attract and retain female talent. “However, only through the combined efforts of business, government and society at large can we ensure we’re not having the same conversation in 100 years’ time,” she says. So, let’s not forget the fervent ardour for change that united the suffrage movement. If the same enthusiasm is exhibited today, we can continue progressing towards true equality.

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