International Women’s Day 2020: where are we with gender equality?

Three women smiling

This week, we’ll be celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD), a day dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women and reflecting on the challenges we still face. It’s a time to focus on where we’re at and where we want to be by setting out pledges and plans for the other 364 days of the year.

Women have united on this day for over 100 years, the first time being when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding voting rights, better hours and much better pay. A few years later, we had our first official celebrations in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.  The courageous activists who led this movement started to make societies realise that women were not the possessions of their fathers or husbands and instead were empowered individuals entitled to freedom and equality (in and out of the office).

Progress around gender equality since then has made some think that our work is complete. The Equality Act 2010 clearly states that sex, race and disability (to name a few) cannot be grounds for discrimination – so what more do we want? Why do we still need an International Women’s Day? Well, unfortunately, even in 2020, the fight for equality is only just beginning. The initial aim of International Women’s Day – gender equality for women of the world – has not yet been achieved.

We’re in a world where the clothes of female politicians are scrutinised more than the words spoken by male politicians. Where sexual harassment in the workplace continues to thrive off misconduct being ignored, with almost two thirds of women aged between 18-24 experiencing sexual harassment in their place of work. And whilst both sex and race are two elements of the Equality Act, women of colour experience some of the highest levels of discrimination. Diane Abbott MP, for instance, received almost half of all online abuse aimed at female MPs during the 2017 general election despite being only one of the very few female politicians of colour. With the persistence of  workplace inequality and a gender pay gap, the UK slipped from 15th to 21st place in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report. We must not lose momentum.

Until findings like these no longer emphasise inequality, International Women’s Day must remain as an important date in our calendar.

How to improve gender equality in the workplace

For this year’s International Women’s Day, Barbie released a doll of Olympian and Britain’s fastest female runner, Dina Asher-Smith, to show young girls that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. But this notion must continue into adulthood and exist in the workplace too. Women of all ages must be surrounded by positive role models who affirm and unleash full potential. One way of doing this in a workplace setting is to establish a women’s network group. EW Group Consultant Caroline Arnold says that employee network groups “provide a valuable resource and forum for under-represented groups”. And visibility through a network group is especially crucial when only 6 percent of S&P 500 companies are steered by women.

When setting up a women’s network group at work, consider the following aspects:

  1. Set the focus for your Women’s Network
  2. Extend the invitation to all employees, regardless of gender
  3. Give structure to the women’s network from the start
  4. Target buy-in from your senior leaders
  5. Position the women’s network correctly
  6. Bring in the right mix of skills
  7. Get the women’s network noticed

See our Seven tips and the reasons behind each one in our Women’s Network Guide.

Avoid tokenism

Women’s network groups demonstrate how organisational change can be brought about from the inside through first-hand experience of where you can do better. But when you go about making positive difference for female employees, it’s crucial to consider how tokenism can be a potential risk.

Mounting pressure on organisations to have greater diversity on their boards and at senior levels is having positive impacts on female employees. More women are being recognised for their talent and hard work, much of which was not previously acknowledged. However, having only one female (or, for example. LGBT+, disabled, Black, Asian or minority ethnic) senior leader does not equate to a truly diverse and inclusive culture. It might seem that you’re doing well in terms of having a diverse workforce – but conducting a Diversity Audit, for example, can identify that diversity is contained to one area of or ends at certain grades in your organisation.

Providing support and embedding opportunity to all of your staff – regardless of their identities – is how diversity can be brought into all levels of your organisation through sincere and authentic means.

Things are improving

Women continue to face adversity in the United Kingdom and around the world – but it doesn’t mean that positive change isn’t happening. Women are marching and some are even space walking. Women are discovering black holes. And others are winning BAFTAs, Oscars and Nobel Peace Prizes. Malala demanded a right for girls’ education. Greta sparked global movements for climate action, whilst women in their thirties lead countries. Women are running the two top European institutions. We are speaking up! These things happen because women decide that she should. All it takes is for one woman to decide that something needs to change and then work with others to make it a reality. It proves that we can all be agents of change – but we can’t lose focus and commitment!

What next?

History has taught us that gender equality does not happen overnight. It requires time, commitment and resources to make it a reality. Gender equality in the workplace is not simply about treating your female employees nicely. It’s about ensuring that they are empowered and integral components across all levels of your organisation, that unconscious gender bias is recognised and prevented, and that harassment and a gender pay gap cease to exist. You can begin by understanding your work demographics through diversity audits and diagnostics to identify areas of organisational improvement. Inclusive leadership development can help your leaders understand their responsibility in creating diverse and inclusive workplaces, whilst training in Unconscious Bias helps all-staff understand how their individual prejudices can affect their decision making.

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