This is an important year for the march towards gender equality

As UK companies unveil their average gender pay gap, Ingrid Silver, Partner at Reed Smith LLP, explains why 2018 could be a vital year for equality across all industries, including telecoms.

As UK companies unveil their average gender pay gap, Ingrid Silver, Partner at Reed Smith LLP, explains why 2018 could be a vital year for equality across all industries, including telecoms.

This could be a hugely important year for women in the UK. 2018 brings the hundredth anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. It is also marks the year when gender pay gap reporting becomes compulsory for companies with over 250 employees. Moreover, this could well be remembered as the year when the #MeToo movement which began at the end of 2017 truly took hold across the world.

Personally, 2018 is the year my daughter turns 18. With a background that encouraged independence, education and ambition, gender equality has always been high on my agenda but bringing a baby girl into the world changed my perspective. My battles were no longer simply my own, but for her sake too.

Retrospectively, it’s certain that women’s statuses have been completely transformed, and yet it is easy to feel disheartened at how far away gender parity still is. Worse still, looking back over the last 18 years, whatever progress we have achieved has been slow, fragile and often the exception not the rule. 

In fact, according to the recent Enders Analysis’ Women at Work Report 2018, only some 28 per cent of FTSE 100 board seats in the UK are held by women, up from 13 per cent in 2011, and there is a remarkable lack of progress by women to senior executive positions. In the same time frame (2011 to 2018), the number of female executive directors has only risen from 6 per cent to 10 per cent of the total. Meanwhile, women as a group have been subsumed into the wider diversity agenda, argues Alice Enders, the author of the Women at Work 2018 report. “Fifty per cent of the population deserves more than 10 per cent of the top jobs.” 

With that backdrop, my generation’s careers have been punctuated by very occasional but nonetheless deeply distressing instances of harassment and a sense of needing to be twice as capable as our male counterparts in order to progress. This can combine with a perhaps irrational, and yet very real, imposter syndrome, even in senior circles.

Despite this, and for the first time in a long time, I am filled with hope. This year, as I talk to my daughter about the future, adult woman to adult woman, I can tell her that her generation is coming of age at a critical inflexion point for gender parity. Gender pay gap reporting together with the #MeToo movement means truth and transparency are at last within reach. The real issue, a question that my daughter’s generation will need to grapple with, is what ought we to do with the information we will possess.

At a dinner I recently hosted for senior women in the media, entertainment and tech industries to mark International Women’s Day, the attendees agreed that gender parity had become a business imperative and identified a number of key areas that would be critical to accelerate gender parity. These were the following: 

1. Focus on the pipeline, not just the top positions: according to the Women at Work Report 2018, the pipeline has been shrinking for some time, from 4.3 million women in 2007 in managerial roles vs 2.9 million in 2017. Businesses need to prioritise their developing talent to reverse this trend.

2. Don't buy into the ‘Princess’ Syndrome: celebrate and reward women’s ways of working rather than humouring or tolerating them. As one attendee put it, “having empathy allows you to be and to help create a different kind of leader.” 

3. Recognise and call out unconscious bias: this bias can be a big “pinch point” for female entrepreneurs and corporate executives alike, as they try to raise money or move into senior financial and P&L roles.

4. Women have a disproportionate responsibility to support other women, but it takes all of us, men and women together, to change perceptions: women being programmed to not put themselves forward for roles or to stand up for proper pay, the “imposter syndrome”, and notions of “parenting” rather than “maternity” need to be addressed through networks and proper mentoring. There are already "positive action" points that employers may legally take to address the paucity of female executives in the pipeline and in their companies, it’s a question of using them. 

5. Call out sexual harassment and discrimination: the #MeToo movement has to be the beginning, not the end of this issue. 

Gaining the right to vote unquestionably marked a pivotal moment in the journey towards gender parity. In time, I suspect that we may well look back and determine that legally obliging companies to report on their gender pay gaps, along with social movements such as #MeToo, was equally important for the realisation of genuine gender parity.

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