Be bold for change: let’s accelerate towards equal opportunity in the workplace

International Women’s Day is always a great opportunity for us all to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It’s also a day for our community to take stock of the progress we’ve made so far towards better gender balance in the workplace, and reflect on the long journey still ahead.

There is much to be feel positive about. In the UK, for example, we’ve made progress on female representation in FTSE boardrooms, thanks to the Lord Davies Review. We’ve also welcomed the Government’s continued efforts on that agenda, which is now being taken forward through the Hampton-Alexander Review. Gender pay gap reporting is coming into force in the UK from April 2017. Although companies will need support to understand what their data is saying and how to act on it, reporting is likely to at least improve transparency. And in Ireland, the government has begun consultation on the next phase of its National Women’s Strategy, which will set out its commitment to advance the rights of women in all facets of life.

We are also seeing progress across Asia and the Middle East. The UAE government announced last year that female federal government employees will have their paid maternity leave extended to three months. It has also set up the Gender Balance Council, tasked with creating a supportive environment for women to fulfil their roles in society. In Singapore, under a three-year pilot, public service workers have just been granted an extra four weeks of unpaid leave for childcare, while shared parental leave for all Singaporean citizens has been extended to four weeks from July this year.

But we cannot become complacent; in fact we must accelerate our efforts. According to the World Economic Forum, the overall global gender gap can be closed in 83 years—a baby girl born today may just live to see that day. But progress towards closing the economic gap has actually slowed down. We are now an incredible 169 years away from achieving economic gender parity, which considers salaries, participation in the labour force and representation in leadership positions.  

News in recent months has been less than encouraging. In the UK, research commissioned by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 77% of women had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy. And nearly two in three young women have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a survey by the Trades Union Congress. In the last few weeks alone, two major tech companies have found themselves in the spotlight as female employees have blown the whistle on discriminatory and hostile working environments. The overall gender earnings gap in Ireland stands at 34.7%. Female representation on Singaporean company boards increased only marginally to 7.7% in 2014 from 6.4% in 2011.

What this shows is that public policy can only go so far. Our community must be bolder and strive to create inclusive workplaces where everyone can contribute to the success of the organisation. As the people profession we sit at the heart of this agenda and can have a significant impact in reducing the current waiting time to economic gender parity.

Having in place the right policies and frameworks to counter any potential barriers women may face in the workplace is important. But reliance on so-called best practice can create a false sense of security. Instead we must think more about the impact and outcomes we want to create. Driving our decisions should be the fundamental principle that work can and should be good for everyone. We must take responsibility for ensuring people at work feel safe, physically and emotionally, that they are recognised for their contributions and treated fairly, and that we support them to grow and give their best. In particular, we need to make better use of flexible working in our organisations, so that we can realise its many benefits for individuals, teams and businesses. At a time when divisions in society are ever more pronounced, our role as a profession is ever more important to create a level playing field of equal opportunity.

So, to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, we are asking our members and the wider HR community to join us in pledging to build fair and inclusive workplaces. We would love for as many of you as possible to take part through your social media channels – you can find out how to take part here.

I hope to see many of you join us. And, while I encourage you all to take time to celebrate in any which way you can on 8 March, I also urge you to continue to take steps towards better gender balance every day of the year. 

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