Gender equality in top jobs

Tuesday 8 March 2022

On this International Women’s Day, gender equality in top positions in the UK remains an ambition without a target date for achievement. Positively there have been recent improvements, but equal pay and status remains some way off.

Where we are now

The Fawcett Society tracks gender equality in the UK and reports that women are still missing in significant numbers in top jobs in politics, the law, civil service, trade unions, charities, and professional and sports bodies. Women of colour are vastly under-represented at the highest levels of many sectors.

The Fawcett's Sex and Power 2022 Index reflects progress towards equal representation for women in top jobs across the UK. The report shows that in most sectors women are outnumbered by men 2:1 in positions of power. 

The 2022 Index shows:

  • Less than one-third of the UK’s top jobs are filled by women.
  • The last two Westminster elections saw scant progress, with the proportion of female MPs at 34%, following the 2019 election.
  • Only eight per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs are women - and there are no women of colour. 
  • Women account for just 34% of members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and related subgroups who have been advising Cabinet on the COVID-19 response.

Where we have come from

In 2016, the Government appointed Sir Philip Hampton and the late Dame Helen Alexander to chair an independent review to ensure talented women at the top of business were recognised, promoted and rewarded. The review focused on increased female representation on FTSE boards, and women in senior executive positions. At the time, although much research supported the economic, business and societal case for gender parity, there was very little movement.

In Britain it was decided the Hampton-Alexander review would adopt a voluntary business led approach, while Europe chose legislation, fines, penalties and quotas. Our target was to increase the number of women on the boards of FTSE 350 companies to 33% by the end of 2020, which, even during the pandemic, was achieved. However, the leaders’ target fell short at 29%.

Why aren’t women getting to the top?

It is not just a question of how many women there are on boards, it’s also about the roles women are being appointed to. Women in Chair and CEO roles in the FTSE 350 are low, with little sign of changing. Women appear in functional, rather than strategic roles, more often in support functions such as finance, HR and administration. Men dominate research and development, operations and profit and loss, which typically lead to chief executive level and board roles.

The representation of women decreases as the level of management increases, resulting in continued male dominance at chief executive level and boards. It is known that the problem starts lower down the pipeline, where fewer women are promoted to manager. Since men significantly outnumber women as managers, there are fewer women to hire or promote to senior managers and onto top teams.

Understanding what is happening in the appointment process for senior jobs is essential to elicit change. The focus needs to be on the entire people process, from recruitment, to exit interviews, bonus, pay, and promotions. All too often the brief for a role is drawn too narrowly and in the image of existing or past candidates; notably male. Inherent bias results in gender stereotyping and continuation of the norm. 

Employers may lack policies designed to encourage gender equality and improve an organisation’s environment and culture. These include parental leave and flexible working, and training, mentoring and networking opportunities.

The International Labour Organisation’s The Business Case for Change, highlighted research that showed enterprise cultures that predominantly require anytime, anywhere availability, create an unfair impact on women, who generally carry greater household, family and caring responsibility.

Recent research by Ipsos and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, finds that one in five people (19%) in Britain say their childcare or other caring responsibilities have prevented them from applying for a job or promotion at work, or have caused them to leave or consider leaving a job.

In fact, women in Britain (26%) are twice as likely as men (13%) to say this has been the case for them, underscoring a well-established gender divide in caring duties.

Investor and shareholder power

Investor and shareholder interest in diversity, inclusion and gender bias has led to more active monitoring, engagement and use of shareholder and investor voting power.

Investors and shareholders are increasingly considering diversity as a voting issue when determining whether they can support individual director re-election at company AGMs.

Tracking diversity and inclusion has become an important risk factor when assessing a company’s performance. Investors and shareholders know that companies with a diverse mix of perspectives and skills are more productive and sustainable.

Companies and organisations with diverse boards and management teams make better decisions, drive innovation and outperform less diverse peers. However, little will change unless investors and employers make fairer employment a priority.

Adele Cherreson Cole, Editor, ALARM

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