Gender Equality in the Workplace: Still an issue?

Discrimination & Detrimental Treatment at Work

I have recently been prompted to write this article about women in the workplace and the inequality that women face for a number of reasons including the fact that I have been instructed by several women in short succession who are clearly being treated to their detriment at work for the sole reason that they are women.

I also recently attend the Law Society Awards evening and it was hosted by a female presenter Mishal Husain; awards were given by the 5th female law society president and there was a female key note speaker. All three spoke about women in the legal profession, championing women’s rights, equality and diversity and highlighted the disparity on the legal profession.

Despite women now outnumbering men in the profession, women make up 50.1% of practicing Solicitors (61.6% of new admissions to the profession in 2016/2017 were women), out of 30,000 partners in private practice only 28% are women. *

It is almost 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (removal) Act was passed to allow women to become Solicitors and clearly there are still challenges in equality and diversity in the legal profession and I for one thought that the Excellence Awards was a fantastic forum to promote equality and women in the legal profession, however there were still a number of groans and grumbles in the room about the fact that these women were ‘banging on about women’s right’s’ and even my own husband, who is a staunch proponent of equality, made a joking comment about the fact that it seemed to ‘go too far’ about women’s rights.

On reflection and after receiving instructions from another women who is being bullied and harassed at work, in a manner that no man would expect to be, I was prompted to write this article and summarise some real-world examples of the challenges women face in the work place. If only to highlight this to those of you who believe that there is no problem or that the issue is being resolved.

Example 1 – employees passed over for promotion due to pregnancy and/or maternity leave

I acted for a lady who had worked for her employer for several years and had done everything possible to be promoted. She was even told that she was next in line when a promotion came up, however when that promotion did come up she was pregnant, and the employer adjusted their normal internal promotion practices which meant she did not have the chance at promotion. To add insult to injury, when the external candidate decided to leave after a short time my client was on maternity leave and was once again passed over for the promotion.

There was no doubt in my mind that this woman, had she not been pregnant or on maternity leave, would have been given the promotion. She was the perfect candidate for the job and there was, in my view, no credible evidence otherwise.

Example 2 – employees receiving sexual emails from their boss

I know of several women who have received emails of a sexual nature from their immediate superior or someone more senior in the organisation. These range from direct ‘propositions’ to forwarding on of sexual content or images.

In all of the cases of women I have spoken to, they felt deeply uncomfortable at receiving these emails and in most cases have been afraid to say anything at all for fear of reprisals.

In 2018 how can any man (or women) feel that it is acceptable to send sexual emails to colleagues!

I used to think that I was immune to detrimental treatment because I am a woman, I consider myself very fortunate in that I come from a family of very strong women, on both sides my grandmothers were feisty women who ruled the roost! Growing up it was my mum who was the career women and my dad looked after us – most notably this led to the tragic loss of my long blond hair to a Princess Diana/Maggie Thatcher 80’s short hair do because my dad struggled with long hair before school every day so the easiest thing was to chop it all off (fortunately my younger sister had the same fate so I was not alone)!

What I mean is that because of my influences and upbringing I have never felt restricted about what I can or cannot do because I am a woman, and this has shaped my actions and beliefs as an adult. The moment I felt restricted or that in some way my career would be hampered because I am a woman I left and set up my own business where I can be in control. I knew that in the traditional solicitor’s world it is almost impossible to work part-time and be taken seriously as a solicitor and that certainly in most firms you will not be ‘promotion’ material if you are not at your desk every work day from dawn till dusk.

I wanted to have a work life balance and to get on in my career and the only way to do that was to set up my own firm. Not everyone is as fortunate as I have been, and this is why, in my view, women are not progressing to senior roles in the profession and why so many women leave the profession completely when they have children.

I am pleased to say that I have been able to give an opportunity to two other working mums and will continue to promote equality in my own practice. But what about the wider world of work?

My experience in recent months is that the barriers for women are still in place and there is a whole range of people, men and women, who have conscious and unconscious bias about women in the workforce and particularly women in senior roles.

In addition, there are many women who have been treated badly or who have been led to believe that they are not good enough and so will not put themselves out there to apply for senior roles or promotions.

What is certain is that a change in attitude is needed, and whilst there are laws in place to try to discourage discrimination, this is not going to change the way people think and the unconscious bias they hold.

What can you do to work towards equality in your organisation?

1. Create a strategy or mission statement setting out your position on gender equality and share this with your workforce.

2. As a very minimum managers and senior staff should have training on equality and diversity including inclusion and narrowing gaps in equality. Ideally your whole workforce should have some training but if time and budgets are limited at the very least train those in senior and decision-making positions.

3. Introduce a clear salary structure based on tangible measures that are not linked to factors which may inadvertently impact negatively on women.

4. Ensure that when hiring new staff, the salary offered fits into the salary structure. Women tend to undervalue their ‘worth’ and so ask for less than men or will not challenge salary offers/levels as much as men.

5. Make the culture in your business one that means working part-time or flexibly is available to all staff and that there is no detrimental treatment or bias as a result of an employee choosing to work part-time or flexibly.

6. Introduce mentoring and/or coaching for female staff to give them opportunities to interact and be exposed to senior roles and managerial projects.

7. Deal with complaints and unacceptable behaviours quickly and seriously. By doing this you demonstrate that you take the issues seriously and will not tolerate such behaviour.

8. Be proactive in building confidence of staff and in particular identify those female staff who may be rising stars but need to gain more confidence in their abilities and what can be achieved.

9. Challenge limiting beliefs among male and female staff – understand that many people will have had their beliefs influenced by several external factors over a number of years. Challenging and changing traditional views about women in the workplace that have been established for decades is not going to happen overnight, but you can start somewhere.

10. Walk the walk! Ensure that what you say is congruent with what you actually do – change starts at the top.

Resources

*Figures taken from the Law Society. You can read more HERE 

What do you think? What are your experiences? Views on this issue?

Please feel free to leave a comment, question or observation below. Alternatively get in touch directly: [email protected]

 

This article was written and researched by Alison Colley, Solicitor and Director at Real Employment Law Advice.

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

 

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