Gender equality in the workplace

17 August 2011

London, 17 August 2011 - With the government recently welcoming Lord Davies’ report, ‘Woman on Boards’, which sets out a series of recommendations to promote gender equality in the workplace, our latest survey of 180 British HR Directors, shows  promising signs that there is progress being made on the diversity front.

At the forefront of our research, we have found an increasing number of HR Directors believe that women are experiencing increasing employment opportunities, particularly in terms of career advancement and remuneration. Perceptions of the gender gap also seem to be closing, with nearly eight in 10 executives (78 %) saying they didn’t believe that men have any advantage over women in the workplace. Interesting to note that the survey responses were nearly evenly divided between male and female respondents.

The beginning of an upwards journey 

It has undoubtedly been a challenging environment for women looking to advance their careers to a non-executive and executive board level, so it is encouraging to find that attitudes and perceptions of those working on the front line are changing. However, it is imperative not to lose sight of the broader picture; there is still a lot of work to be done, and a clear discrepancy between gender opportunities in employment. It was surprising to see that one in five (20 %) HR directors in the UK still think that women are not professionally equal to men in the workplace. For example, the findings of our annual FTSE 100 CEO Tracker showed that the number of women leading their organisations in 2011 has remained unchanged from 2008, with just five at the top.  This suggests that there is still a proverbial ‘glass ceiling’ which needs to be broken if women are to take their rightful place in the workplace.

How to break the glass ceiling 

There is a variety of benefits of this slow but sure movement towards diversity within the workforce. It widens the perspectives brought to bear on decision-making, avoids too great a similarity of attitude amongst colleagues, and helps companies better understand their customers and stakeholders.  The UK is heading in the right direction here, with the government recently starting to put pressure on the FTSE 100 to increase the proportion of female directors on their boards to 25% by 2015, and large organisations may be forced to reveal how many women they have interviewed for senior positions.

At the same time, it is imperative that women are often presented with different opportunities and choices compared with their male counterparts. Having children and looking after the family are traditionally more female roles, and having to juggle these with a successful career can be incredibly challenging, with some opting for one over the other. In light of this, HR Directors should regularly review their succession and remuneration plans to ensure their female employees are receiving equal opportunities and are being as flexible as possible in terms of maternity leave and flexible working.

Another trend we are seeing, especially in the capital, is companies starting to welcome initiatives specifically designed to support women’s progression in the workplace. It is encouraging to see that an overwhelming 93 % of companies who have these programmes in place believe they are effective in combating the gender gap.  Introducing programmes which focus on higher education opportunities for women, as well as support for flexible working arrangements, are just some of the initiatives which can be introduced. In addition to improving a business’s diversity credentials, these policies are a good employer branding opportunity to encourage more women candidates to apply to these roles. There are clear signs that steps are being made in the right direction, but more can be done by employers to give women as equal footing as possible, namely being flexible and taking into consideration family obligations. As gender inequalities continue to dominate the headlines, this will also help companies embrace a culture of progression, innovation and diversity which can act as an effective way to recruit top talent in a competitive environment.

About the survey

The survey, developed by OfficeTeam, a leading provider of specialised recruitment services, was conducted by an independent research firm. More than 180 HR directors were interviewed across the UK; companies from all segments were represented and the sample was stratified by gender, geographic region and numbers of employees.