The UK became a global leader in the gender equality fight with the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. Although the Act had inherent problems, it set an early tone for action on gender rights. Fast-forward to present day within the UK and evidence indicates we are increasingly lagging behind. The UK ranks 18th in the world in terms of a gender gap in the workplace, 43rd in women’s economic participation and 23rd in terms of political empowerment. Gender inequality is systematically present across the UK, worsening within Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) populations. The intersection of gender and ethnicity is a crucial issue that was discussed at the Cumberland Lodge’s Ethnic Inequalities at Work: Policy and Institutional Responses Conference.
Despite continuous claims over the past decade by Government leaders to reduce pay gaps and end workplace inequalities across gender and ethnicity little seems to be changing, painting a stark picture of an inherently sexist and racist society. Evidence presented by speakers demonstrated discrimination and bias embedded in organizational practice across all employment sectors. Women represent 55% of University graduates across UK post-secondary institutions. Evidence however reveals that while women are hired equally at entry level positions, their advancement into both the public and private sector management or senior positions is significantly reduced. Within the education sector, only 20% of tenured university professors and 14% of Vice-Chancellors are women. These figures worsen within the corporate sector, with only 6% of FTSE 100 executive positions and 3% of board chairpersons being held by females. Furthermore, within the British civil service at every level, women are paid less than men and despite a greater proportion of females employed overall, men outnumber women at all senior levels. These stark figures worsen when looking across BAME female populations.
Discussions during the conference were fierce concerning what needs to be done to reduce these inequalities. Between conference participants, multiple options emerged as necessary steps towards change. Consensus was reached on the need for legislative reform mandating gender and race information is published. Norway was used as an example where a law mandating salaries are published resulted in a substantial reduction of pay gaps. Effective monitoring and the development of transparent and clear evidence is a first step towards awareness and widespread change. Participants also advocated and agreed on the need for welfare and social reforms that enable more equitable participation in the labour market. One reform suggestion was for the development of a national childcare service to universally fund child care up to the age of 14. In addition, the need for a national career service to prevent occupational and vertical segregation by gender was voiced.
While agreement was reached that these population strategies are a step towards increasing equality at the intersection of gender and ethnicity across the entirety of the workforce, data indicates concentrated efforts are needed to address equality both leadership and senior positions. Throughout discussions and the conference’s sessions, a contentious issue emerged, being the use of targets and quotas as a means for change. A strong opinion against positive discrimination was put forth by a corporate executive present, who argued legislation of this form slows down innovation and economic growth. Change should therefore focus at the individual level including education and business HR efforts. A focus on a growing economy this executive argued is a critical component of fostering growth and diversity. While education on the business case for equality including higher profitability and a high rate of return on investment can be made as encouragement for more diverse companies, history and stagnant progress has demonstrated that this isn’t enough. We cannot continue to put the onus on individuals while creating overarching diversity policies and waiting for change.
Take for example university professors across the UK’s Russell Group Universities. This group contains 24 Universities who are perceived to represent the best in the Country. Across all institutions there are only 22 black tenured female professors, equating to 2000 black female students for every black female professor. In comparison, there are 50 white male students for every white male professor. Evidence tells us that mentors are critical to professional success and career advancement. How can we expect equality in progression if we are not representing it in leadership at a University wide level? Putting the burden on the individual overlooks such constraints. We are at a crucial point where we need fundamental and institutional change.
Both the Cameron and May governments, as well as prior administrations, have made continuous commitments to ending unequal pay gaps. Yet not much is changing. At the current rate of progression of women in UK politics, it will take 70 years to have equal gender roles and even longer to have a representative number of BAME females. One can look towards the use of quotas by the Labour Party in the 2015 general election for evidence of effectiveness of an action that has dramatically increased representation. Further data indicates that without substantial action the gender pay gap will not be eradicated until 2069. Without specified targets and legislation employers will continue to merely play lip service to diversity policies. It’s time for all workplaces to start taking this issue seriously.