Workplace gender equality remains a concern

For the UK government, it has been a long-stated aim to ensure gender equality in the world of business, meaning both male and female professionals are able to compete on an even footing. As long ago as 1970 - when the Equal Pay Act entered the statute books - it became illegal for employers to treat men more favourably than women when setting pay and conditions of employment, but there a pay gap still remains between women and men.

Progress has been made in the years since, in terms of protecting the interests of female employees, ensuring they are fairly remunerated and giving them chance to rise to the top of their profession. But have employers gone far enough? Even in 2014, some concerns remain about a supposed gender barrier in business - effectively a "glass ceiling" that female professionals struggle to break through.

Concerns over gender equality persists

In a recent poll conducted by Robert Half, 66% of male and female professionals expressed the view that women are disadvantaged in the workplace. More than four in ten (42%) aged between 18 and 34 said they had personally faced a gender barrier at work, followed by 34% of those aged between 35 and 54 and 26% aged 55 and over.

Of those women who claim to have experienced inequality at work, over a third (35%) believe male colleagues at the same level earn more than they do. Some 31% claim they are assigned work that is below their level of ability, and 19% believe junior colleagues do not take instructions from them, despite being willing to do so from male colleagues of equal seniority.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of UK employees surveyed by Robert Half believe the societal perception of a woman’s role and/or career path is a major constraint on their progress. Other top causes of inequality of work for women - reported by both male and female employees - are believed to be managerial style (29%), lack of workplace visibility (24%) and an absence of confidence (22%).

Ensuring gender equality in the workplace

If there is gender inequality in business, then what can be done to overcome it? There has been much discussion and debate about how best to ensure women can achieve their professional potential. Nearly half of employees (49%) think companies should provide flexible working opportunities, while a further 43% believe employers should review pay grades. Some 23% have called on organisations to run development workshops - for instance management training and confidence building - to provide female employees with greater support.

A more controversial option is gender quotas for professionals working in senior roles. This approach - which has been adopted in some jurisdictions, such as Norway and, more recently, Germany - has some support in the UK. However, critics argue that positive discrimination can be counter-productive, resulting in resentment within the workplace and potentially the over-promotion of individuals beyond their capabilities.

Increasing representation in the boardroom

A government report published in 2011 stopped short of demanding precise quotas, but it did call for all FTSE 100 boards to aim for a minimum of 25% female representation at board level by 2015. This means employers still have the scope to make commercially-sound appointments and recruitment decisions, in the best interests of the business, so long as they make a general commitment to promote female career development.

Figures published in October 2013 suggest progress is being made, in terms of promoting more women to senior roles. Female representation on the top companies' boards has continued to increase, reaching 19% in October 2013, up from 12.5% in February 2011. And 23.8% of non-executive FTSE 100 directors were female, up from 15.6% at the time of the original report.

Business secretary Vince Cable welcomed the apparent improvement, expressing confidence that the FTSE 100 will meet the 25% target by next year. "This is about more talented women getting executive experience, so that they will not only advise, but run this country’s great companies," he stated.

Lord Davies - whose report introduced the female representation target for FTSE 100 boards - claimed that organisations are not letting the issue of gender equality pass them by. "Businesses are making real efforts to find and appoint capable women to their boards," he stated. "We have now moved to a place where it is unacceptable for the voice of women to be absent from the boardroom."

And industry chiefs have also responded positively to the introduction of a voluntary, business-led approach to improving female representation. Katja Hall, chief policy director at the Confederation of British Industry, claimed this strategy "is working", with more women being given the opportunity to work in executive roles.

She claimed that organisations can only secure the best leaders if they look at the widest pool of candidates, noting that greater diversity in the boardroom can improve decision making. "If we are to remove further blockages in the pipeline of female talent to the top, business leaders must continue to improve recruitment, mentoring and succession planning," Ms Hall added.

So is gender equality improving?

Government figures suggest women are now being given a greater opportunity to prove their worth in senior jobs, allowing them to reach the top of their industry and command the best-paying jobs. Support for this theory can be found in a study of 200 UK-based HR directors, who were asked about the progress of female professionals in the workplace.

Some 47% of respondents expressed the view that women are advancing their careers on par with men in the workplace - displaying a mismatch of perceptions between employees and HR directors. In the Robert Half study, just 34% of employees thought this was the case, with the other two-thirds believing they are being held back.

The reality is that, while advances are being made in terms of supporting women in the workplace, complete gender equality remains some way off. As Robert Half director Estelle James acknowledged, business leaders are taking steps to level the playing field, but these inroads are not always being felt by the employees themselves.

"Businesses need to eradicate the ‘old boys club’ mentality and allocate adequate resources to ensure that the glass ceiling becomes the glass elevator," she claimed. "Offering the right career-pathing and development opportunities, coupled with more flexible working options, will result in a larger pool of women ready to take their rightful seat at the boardroom table."

Ms James said there is still more work to be done, adding that respect, equality and fairness need to be embraced by all within UK business. "In the end, it’s about the skills one brings to the workplace, not their gender," she argued.