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Gender equality at work

The Fawcett Society’s Sex and Power Index 2020: Are we making progress on gender equality?


The Fawcett Society’s Sex and Power 2020 Index indicates that progress on gender equality is glacially slow. Where are we going wrong?

7th Feb 2020
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It’s been over two years since the BBC revealed that its male employees earned, on average, 9% more than their female colleagues, sparking a debate that continues to rage just as passionately today as it did in 2017.

And it’s a debate that needs to happen. The fact that, in the vast majority of industries and professions, women receive lower pay than men is a deeply rooted issue, and the narrative that this state of affairs is no longer acceptable has snowballed.

But what progress has actually been made since the gender pay gap was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the spotlight? Can we breathe a sigh of relief, comfortable in the knowledge that things are improving?

The Fawcett Society’s Sex and Power Index 2020

One organisation that is doing a great deal to move this debate along is leading women’s rights charity, The Fawcett Society. The 2020 edition of its annual Sex and Power Index, released in January, revealed that there is still a startling amount of progress yet to be made.

A key factor behind the gender pay gap is the lack of female representation in senior roles. Indeed, one particularly memorable survey revealed just two short years ago that more FTSE 100 companies were led by men called David or Steve than by women or minorities.

The Fawcett Society’s new report has given a more recent state of play and the findings show that the efforts made so far are still woefully inadequate.

Laying bare the current gender balance in various industries and walks of life, the Fawcett Society found that in business, just over one in 20 FTSE 100 chief executives are women, and that none are women of colour. In government, one in three (34%) MPs and just a quarter (27%) of peers in the House of Lords are women. In the media, women comprise just one in five (21%) newspaper editors.

If it wasn’t clear already, these findings paint a glaring picture of just how much change is still required. What can be done, though? How can we bring about genuine change?

What we need to see is more organisations actively hiring and promoting women into senior positions.

Why well-intentioned actions are making the problem worse

A key issue is that many organisations are approaching this problem in the wrong way. Many leaders assume that by hiring a more diverse team at a junior level, the company will become more diverse as those employees mature and grow into more senior roles.

It’s for this reason that many industries have seen widespread female-focused recruitment in junior roles over the past couple of years. (Many organisations have done this in order to close the gender pay gap – not realising that increasing the numbers of women at entry level will only serve to increase it). 

But a company’s culture is established at the top and runs down; not the other way around. So, although it’s great to see this kind of active recruitment of female candidates, the result is actually an overrepresentation of women in junior positions and not enough change at a more senior level. What we need to see is more organisations actively hiring and promoting women into senior positions.

The Steves and Davids of this world can breathe a small sigh of relief, knowing that their dominance is not being challenged just yet. 

Unconscious biases are still holding back progress

This particular problem stems from the belief – held by members of both sexes – that women are less qualified for leadership than men. On an unconscious level, we more commonly associate the stereotypical qualities of leadership with men than women, expecting men to be assertive and rational, and women to be caring and sensitive.

Not only does this mindset hold women back from achieving senior positions, but it’s actually far from the truth. In reality, women are as equally capable as men in all leadership qualities; not just those considered to be stereotypically female. 

There are some organisations that believe various forms of diversity training will help to address this issue. A course that will help leaders and recruiters to better understand their own biases – conscious or indeed unconscious – is certainly a good place to start, but it’s important that those leaders continue to put the lessons they take from such sessions into practice on a regular basis. Organisations need to conduct bias reviews of their appraisal processes, hiring decisions and succession plans.

How can we better challenge the Steves and Davids of the world?

There are other actions that can be taken, though. Organisations should actively search for ways to diversify their lateral hires and create programmes that increase promotion rates for women, while ensuring retention of women who are already operating at a senior level.

These are actions that we can all take – if we are truly willing to act. The very fact that organisations such as The Fawcett Society are encouraging these discussions to take place is indicative of the fact that change is happening. The bottom line though, is that we still have a lot of ground to cover.

If gender equality is to be improved once and for all, it’s our perceptions of gender roles in the workplace that must change. In the meantime, the Steves and Davids of this world can breathe a small sigh of relief, knowing that their dominance is not being challenged just yet. 


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