Rebuilding momentum on women’s progress at work

Written by Ann Francke OBE Wednesday 19 May 2021
Gender equality in the workplace has been disrupted by Covid-19 – but it’s time to gain back what we’ve lost in the past year
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say the pandemic has been disastrous for women’s economic progress. Take, as an example, the British government’s requirement that companies with more than 250 employees publish their gender pay gap data. This didn’t happen in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the 2021 deadline for companies to publish has been pushed back to October (though we urge you to complete this as soon as you’re able to). That’s a big concern when policies generated from the pandemic, such as furlough and home-schooling, have already been shown to have had a negative impact on women at work.

So, for our latest Better Managers Briefing, I was delighted to have an opportunity to talk with CMI Companion and deputy chair of CMI Women Jo Moffatt CMgr. Jo, a chartered civil engineer, is a director at engineering and design company Atkins and also a qualified executive coach and experienced mentor. I asked Jo to give us her views on how we might rebuild the moment for equality at work for women.

Recognise the scale of the problem

A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute estimated that while women make up almost two-fifths of the global labour force, they’ve suffered more than half of total job losses from the crisis – almost twice as vulnerable to the pandemic’s impact as men. “Women have been impacted harder in many ways by the pandemic, partly because they work in sectors that have been severely impacted, such as hospitality or food services, but also because the greater responsibility for homeschooling and childcare has generally fallen to women as well,” explains Jo.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2020 estimated that, at the current rate of progress, it will take another 100 years to achieve gender equality across four key areas: economic participation, educational attainment, health, and political empowerment.

“That shows that we really need to accelerate progress, which has been painfully slow,” says Jo. “When you look at the gender pay gap reporting, the suspension of enforcement action this year means it's been left to companies to voluntarily report. As a result, only a quarter of companies have reported compared to this time last year. It shows the scale of the challenge that we still face.”

She suggests that one way to kickstart this progress is to get men onboard as allies; one way to do this is to broaden the definition of diversity to encompass more than gender specifically. She credits Matthew Syed’s Management Book of the Year-winning title Rebel Ideas with giving ideas of how to engage others on the topic of business benefits of diversity. While we agreed that gender diversity in the workplace should be a topic we’re all invested in from the get-go, we also agree that we need to do whatever works in order to move forward.

Drive change

CMI Women has, says Jo, identified what needs to happen to address the imbalances and build a strong pipeline of women managers and leaders. “Gender pay gap reporting must be continued and expanded so that companies are also made to report on their action plans to close their pay gaps,” she says, arguing that regulatory frameworks should be expanded to support positive action. In particular, making flexibility work for both men and women within all organisations and at all levels of those organisations. She points to the recent Procurement Policy Note 06/20 that requires suppliers bidding for government contracts to demonstrate their social values, including equality. “That shows the types of measures that can create a lot of positive action and change,” says Jo.

Change the narrative

More effort must be made in engaging “those in the majority,” says Jo. “We must change the narrative so that we have leaders who are presenting a really inclusive vision for the future, a vision that addresses the concerns of the majority who think they're losing out because they perceive minority groups are enjoying more progression. We must connect the head and heart, improving understanding of the clear business cases around diversity and inclusion, but also showing leaders and everyone in the majority that it is ethical too – persuading them that they have an individual responsibility, and the ability, to make a difference.”

Look ahead

In Jo’s industry, research by Engineering UK has shown that 57% of female engineers are no longer on the register of professional engineers by the time they reach the age of 45 – compared with just 17% of men.

“That’s really shocking,” says Jo, “because these are women with the kind of experience that makes them more valuable employees. We need to find ways to access that pool of people, and get them back into engineering, training, mentoring and sponsorship.”

With the focus in engineering – and other industries – turning increasingly towards digital technology, Jo foresees greater opportunities for women. “The automation of many design tasks, for example, means less need for people to be in offices calculating the inputs, and more time sense-checking the outputs,” predicts Jo. “The future role of the engineer will be more about stakeholder engagement and the impact of engineering projects on people and communities. That opens up a whole new realm of skills and emotional intelligence that will be required, which I think will attract more women into our profession.”

You can watch our discussion in full here, and find out more about CMI Women here.

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