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To the Moon and Beyond: Is Equality the Final Frontier for Women in the Workplace?

Is progression in the workplace fair and equal for men and women?  

It’s safe to say that whilst we are making incredible progress, we will have a way to go! The UK has the twelfth widest gender pay gap in the world, according to the latest OECD data, with men earning 14.5% more than women. What’s interesting is the gap increases as workers get older, with men in their fifties being paid 19.7% more than women, but there is only a 0.8% gap in the 18-21 age bracket.

So, what does all this tell us about career progression and what’s happening along the way for women to be worse off than our male counterparts? We know from research that ninety per cent of women under thirty want to be promoted to the next level and seventy-five per cent aspire to become senior leaders.  We also know that social cloning is a challenge and even today we hear clients talking about ‘fit’, which doesn’t feel like inclusive language for women, or the intersectional conversation either.

I sometimes need to pinch myself with how incredibly lucky and privileged I am in this role. I get to speak to so many incredible people, more brilliant, inspirational, and intellectual than I could ever dream to be. I am passionate about feminine leadership and truly believe that women have a much tougher time in society than our male counterparts do. Hopefully this article brings to life some of the challenges that women face whilst also bringing some smiles to your faces, as great things are happening to change the narrative.

‘Mums’, ‘sisters’, ‘aunties’, ‘friends’, ‘carers’, ‘colleagues’, ‘Directors’, and ‘leaders’ were just some of the titles that came up in my many conversations with women over the last few weeks.

What was clear and heartwarming to see was that every woman could describe a time in their life when they’d had a positive role model in their story. Brodie Turner, Assistant Director (AD) for Economy and Culture at Lambeth is one of the youngest women in Local Government with the ‘AD’ title. She said that her formative years were spent at an all-girl’s school and she was taught to think that there was no glass ceiling for women. Another woman I spoke with smiled brightly as she fondly remembered two past managers as role models – ‘trusted’, ‘autonomy’, ‘cared-for’, ‘supported’ and ‘nurtured’ were some of the words used. It was inspiring to hear that all the women I spoke with had a professional male role model in their career stories, and these men championed them.

Research suggests that women’s progression in the workplace continues to be held back by barriers such as bias around pay and promotion, difficult workplace cultures, tensions between balancing work with care and a shortage of quality part-time work with a good wage potential. I also spoke with Ruby Bhattal, Deputy Director of Reputation and Brand at the University of Nottingham. Whilst working for a different employer earlier in her career, Ruby shared she decided to cut short her first maternity leave to 6-months because she believed this might strengthen her position for progression during a restructure. When I asked her why she felt she had to do that, she reflected that she wanted people to know she was serious about developing her career. We discussed this more and it was interesting to hear Ruby share that if she had that time again and importantly the experience and knowledge, she has now, she may not have made that choice because family is important too. Ruby did secure the promotion which she believes was a catalyst for her career, and she also went on to take a 12-month maternity leave period with her second child.

Do we fear that our male counterparts can ‘get ahead’ while we’re on Maternity leave? Are women constantly feeling like they must choose between working and being a mother, or can we have both? What about menopause and how that impacts a woman’s health? The research certainly suggests career progression is limiting for women from most age groups.  Brodie’s view on women having it all is “the world is a blocker, not the women”. Ruby feels if women can craft a space to be effective at organising their lives, having it all is possible. Research suggests for many workplaces persistent norms of overwork, expectations of constant availability and excess workloads conflict with unpaid caring responsibilities – the majority of which still fall on women. Ruby did share that boundary setting is critical and working extra hours to try and fit it all in is not the answer – working smart is her motto. 

Sadly, not all women have had positive experiences and a couple of women I spoke with had suffered what can only be described as traumatic experiences after returning from Maternity leave. One shared how she was left out of meetings because they were arranged for her non-working day, she was blocked from speaking, not given praise for her share in the work, and was uninvited to meetings and events. Another reported to her manager that she was struggling with the workload and was informed that it’s her choice to be part-time. ‘Gaslighting’, ‘bullying’, and ‘discrimination’ were some of the words mentioned by these women. One woman explained that the reason why she didn’t try to address these issues through internal challenges such as HR, was because she felt that she could fix it and make it better. She wanted to be there for her team, and she put other people above her own sinking desperation and health, and the health of her suffering family. She also felt it might be career suicide if she did that, and that weighed heavily on her, so she did nothing until years later when she moved to a different organisation.

Years of data show that women experience microaggression at a higher rate than men. One woman told me that a more female senior colleague once asked her if there was something she needed to share, as it was noticed that her hands were resting on her stomach in a meeting. Another recalled a time when she was interviewing and went to collect a candidate who asked how the work experience placement was going. Another talked about how she had struggled to be accepted by her peers and frequently felt undermined in both private and in meetings, and the peers just couldn’t accept her voice as an equal. The most important thing to all the women I talked to was the power of challenge. If you hear a microaggression, do all you can to be brave and stand up in support of raising awareness of microaggressions in the workplace, and wider.

Whilst it is evident women are becoming more ambitious, flexibility is still needed. The pandemic helped, but it is concerning that more and more organisations are now thinking differently about returning to the office. We’ve had national debate on the 4-day working week, as well as the recent statements on productivity and the value of EDI programmes from the Minister of Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). Are we really thinking about inclusive workplaces when we’re asking our workforce to be back in the office 4-5 days per week? How is this anything but disadvantageous to women, and those with caring responsibilities, and intersectionality between other protected characteristics?

On the topic of recruitment, all the women I spoke with said they would consider how an organisation looks and feels on paper and through an interview process in terms of its culture of inclusivity. It’s crucially important to note that feminine leadership qualities show great leadership – being vulnerable, soft, inspirational, caring, and compassionate are not mutually exclusive from being strong, dynamic, tough, driven, and successful. What does your company’s language say about the culture?

When asked what colleagues, managers and employers can do to help women in leadership positions feel included, the ask is simple: embrace the feminine qualities we bring. Help us engage and be engaged with projects, new work, innovation and the day-to-day. Allow us to shine and support us when we might be having what appears to be an ‘off day’. Caring responsibilities children and adults), difficulties conceiving, menopause, grappling with the gender pay gap, working harder to try and get that promotion, battling to fit continued professional development in around caring responsibilities are just some of the things we might be going through. Above all, ask your women employees for their views, for their challenges and develop psychologically safe spaces to help keep the conversation going.

Ruby, Brodie and I in our own ways are committed to using our experience to be good role models to other women, and helping other women realise their full potential by creating safe spaces for conversations to take place.

I pledge to help forge a gender equal world. Thank you for joining me on this journey, there are some amazing people and some amazing work happening to tip the balance into equality in the Public Sector, let’s keep the momentum up!

Rachael Morris is a Senior Consultant in the Executive Search Practice at Penna, with a specialism in Local Government having served in sector for over two decades. She is also Penna’s HROD specialist recruiter.

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Rachael Morris


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