8 March 2019 | By Henrietta Jowitt Insight

The sustained action we're calling for this International Women's Day

Equality is a long-term project, requiring sustained action. Business needs to do more, and so does the government, says CBI Deputy Director-General Henrietta Jowitt

This is the first International Women’s Day since the 100-year anniversary of women in the UK winning the vote. And amid the commemorations, I couldn’t help but remember that female emancipation isn’t won only at the ballot box but in the boardroom, in factories, in shops and in offices.

Through work we shape our world and turn our ideas into things we value – products and services that benefit everyone. And it is through work that women earn money, giving us economic power.

Yet the real argument isn’t that women need business, but that business needs women. A landmark study by McKinsey put some numbers behind what we all know to be true: that diverse companies are better companies, more than 20% more likely to outperform on profitability. 

But the sad truth is that women remain underrepresented in business, the gender pay gap is real and, even worse, some face harassment and many face discrimination. These are facts we cannot and must not ignore.

So, what do we do about it?

I hope in 30 years’ time my own daughters will not have to talk about this as an issue, but as something of historical interest, as we do the 1918 vote. But we need to recognise that equality is a long-term project, requiring sustained action.

So often inequality begins and grows from the roots, in our very early years in schools and at home. By age seven, the gender perceptions of children are already cemented.

The Institution for Engineering and Technology found that toys with a science, technology, engineering or maths focus were three times more likely to be targeted at boys. And this gender bias works both ways, with boys also discouraged from certain careers and missing out on developing soft skills and emotional intelligence.

The knock-on effect is that only a quarter of all graduates in core STEM subjects are women, even though female graduates make up more than 50% of the graduate population.

The first step of the plan is for women, men and businesses to get out into our schools to deliver the message that business is for girls too and that jobs are gender neutral. In the next few months the CBI will publish a toolkit which we will send to our members which will provide businesses with the information they need to get involved in education.

Secondly, the gender pay gap remains a huge inequality, standing at 17.9% across the UK. Last year, for the first time, firms with over 250 employees published their gender pay gaps. And many firms, like the CBI, who were not required to publish data still chose to do so in order to hold themselves to account. What gets measured gets done and both they and we have pledged to do more to reduce the gaps our businesses.

But we mustn’t also forget the gender pay gap has many complex causes. To help close it, we also need the government to make progress on affordable childcare, technical education and careers advice too.

It is clear that more needs to be done.

Businesses must show leadership in making equality, diversity and inclusion a core part of their business strategy. They must measure progress by collecting and publishing data and continually take small but significant steps like challenging all-male shortlists and considering name-blind recruitment before any interview list is drawn up.

Unfortunately, inequalities don’t just come in the form of unequal pay.

We didn’t need #MeToo to tell us that unacceptable attitudes and behaviours still exist in some workplaces. But it has been empowering to see women in business follow their counterparts in Hollywood and Westminster in coming forward to share their stories about people who are meant to set standards but have instead abused them.

What’s made it all the more pernicious is the misuse use of Non-Disclosure Agreements.

The CBI is calling for a statutory code of practice which should make some good practices compulsory, improve awareness of a NDA’s limitations and improve enforcement where they are misused. And also the reinstatement of Section 40 of the Equalities Act which makes it clear that employers can be held accountable for third-party harassment and send a message that harassment at work will be rooted out.

Together we can create a business environment where all women can succeed and everyone can bring their whole selves to work, feel valued and safe and have equal opportunities to succeed in whichever job they decide to do.

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