Cutting through the noise: International Women’s Day 2021

International Women’s Day 2021 has an almighty job on its hands. Raising awareness of gender issues, in fact any issue, during a time when the world is preoccupied with a major global disaster is not an easy task – the irony being of course that the gender equality gap has widened even further due to the pandemic.

As Caroline Noakes, MP and Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, put it, ‘Recovery from the pandemic might well be the biggest challenge facing women since the Pankhursts took up the struggle to get women the vote well over 100 years ago”.

This year’s theme, #choosetochallenge asks the world to call out gender bias and inequality, seeking out and celebrating women’s achievements – of which there have been many over the last year. The appointment of the first ever female vice-president, Kamala Harris, is just one example of positive change and female empowerment, inspirational for women across the world.

The current state of play

The effects of the pandemic on women have been devastating across the world. In December 2020, 140,000 US jobs were lost and, with women losing 156,000 jobs and men gaining 16,000, the data revealed what CNN called a ‘shocking gender gap’. Meanwhile, a report from management consultancy McKinsey has said that as many as 2 million women in America are considering taking a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether, saying, “many employees are exhausted and burned out. Women in particular have been negatively impacted, and three groups are facing distinct challenges: mothers, senior-level women, and black women”.

In the UK, figures from the Office for National Statistics have shown that, the number of women aged 25-34 that have been made redundant is double that of men, perhaps due in part to the mass job losses in the retail beauty and hospitality sectors. Data from Women’s Budget Group, Fawcett Society has further highlighted the pressures on mothers with over 1 in 3 working mothers losing work or hours due to childcare needs.

Helping to forge a gender equal world

These figures make for stark reading and the risk is that over the mid to long term the result will be a drop in the number of women in senior roles.

The positive effects of a diverse boardroom have been proven time and time again. In 2019, the proportion of women in senior management roles globally grew to 29%, the highest number ever recorded. At the end of 2019, FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies were on target for women to make up at last a third of boards by the end of 2020. Encouragingly, this has been achieved with 34.3% of board roles across the FTSE 350 now held by women, up from 30.6% in 2019.

Despite this, there is still some way to go and fears that the pandemic has set women back 50 years are certainly not unfounded. The wider issue here is how to raise awareness and promote accountability amidst a background of economic and social uncertainty.

This is a shared endeavour requiring commitment and action from governments and employers – who undoubtedly have a huge responsibility to improving diversity within their businesses. Many are already doing this, with diversity targets being implemented and flexible working policies now becoming the norm. There is no reason to not shout about these policies (albeit carefully), making sure they are easily accessible for others to see – both externally and internally. If policies are hidden away it can be tricky for stakeholders to find out exactly what firms are doing to move forward on gender and diversity issues, and there is a growing expectation for brands to be transparent vis a vis workplace and workforce issues – often above and beyond statutory requirements such as Gender Pay Gap Reporting. It goes without saying that if firms are open about their efforts to tackle these issues, others will need to follow suit.

Transparency and accountability will ultimately have a positive impact on several business areas, including recruitment and reputation.

The Glassdoor hiring trends for 2020 report predicted that D&I recruitment would be vital businesses that wished to attract new employees whilst keeping up with competitors and industry trends. Infinite Global Non-executive Director and Ambassador for the Taylor Bennett Foundation, Anne Groves, believes that the business case for promoting diversity talent has been well and truly made: “There is clear evidence of the commercial benefits that greater diversity delivers.  We all need to join the challenge on this – and to challenge ourselves.”

“We will not achieve greater diversity in senior positions if we do not make a real effort to recruit in a more diverse way into junior positions: if we are more imaginative about where we look for talent and how we recruit, we will increase diversity and that will, naturally, lead to greater diversity of people in senior positions. It is now up to all of us to act on this.”

At the very least, all businesses should be striving to #choosetochallenge this International Women’s Day and to raise awareness of gender issues, particularly at a time when women are, arguably, even more disadvantaged than they were 12 months ago before the onset of the pandemic.

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