International Women’s Day 2021 – Leadership, health, wellbeing and equality in the workplace

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day, and this year the theme is ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.’ The theme celebrates the incredible efforts by women and girls around the globe in shaping a more equal future and effective recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and is aligned with the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which focuses on ‘women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.’ It also focuses on Generation Equality’s campaign,  which calls for women’s right to decision-making in all areas of life, equal pay, equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work, an end to all forms of violence against women and girls, and health-care services that respond to their needs.

Slow progress on bridging the gender pay gap

It is right to acknowledge that women have made up the majority of front-line workers throughout the pandemic, through roles such as health care workers, caregivers, housing officers, community organisers, as well as some of the most effective national leadership roles across the globe in tackling and creating strategies to combat the pandemic. However, the disparity in pay for these roles is still alarmingly unequal. For example, despite women making up the majority of housing officer roles, they are still being paid, on average, less than their male counterparts (Career Smart, 2020). According to the World Economic Forum, it will take an eye watering 95 years to close the gender gap in political representation, with women in 2019 holding just 25.2% of parliamentary (lower-house) seats and 21.2% of ministerial positions. Three of the main reasons for this are that women have greater representation in roles that are being automated, not enough women are entering professions where wage growth is the most pronounced (most obviously, but not exclusively, technology), and women face the perennial problem of insufficient care infrastructure and access to capital. Interestingly, of those countries leading the way in achieving gender parity, the trend seems to carry downwards and positively impact other women in the workplace in those countries too.

Equal does not mean the same

As well as recognising all the achievements feminine influences have had on different aspects of society across the globe, there is a spotlight this year on women’s health, including in the workplace, and the added impact Covid-19 has had on women since the start of the pandemic.

This year, to coincide with IWD, the government has launched a new initiative in the shape of a twelve week call for evidence to improve health and wellbeing of women in England. This initiative will form the basis of a landmark government-led Women’s Health Strategy, which is designed to improve the health and wellbeing of women and ‘place women’s voices at the centre of their care.’ One of the six core themes will be centred around ‘maximising women’s health in the workplace – deepening our understanding of how women’s health issues can affect their workforce participation and outcomes, both with regards to female-specific issues such as the menopause, but also conditions that are more prevalent in women such as musculoskeletal conditions, depression or anxiety.’

The menopause has always been a bit of a scary word to talk about in the workplace (think the Bellatrix Lestrange scene in the Harry Potter film, Order of the Phoenix), however, every woman has, is or will be going through it at some point, so it seems odd that it is not openly discussed or acknowledged across our workspaces, but there is a reason for this. Women have worked hard to achieve equity in the workplace, and it has been a very long battle. To receive equal opportunities, equal pay and equal standing, it can feel counteractive to then point out that often at the pinnacle of our careers we might be faced with a disadvantage.

So how does it affect people? Well, often, it doesn’t, there are many women who sail through the menopause with little to no symptoms and it’s important to understand that it’s not something everyone will ‘suffer’. However, there is also a large section of the female workforce who will, through no fault of their own, and its important to acknowledge this, support these people and ensure it doesn’t adversely impact their opportunities and chances at succeeding in their careers.

Perimenopausal symptoms can start up to ten years before the actual menopause, and as women are the fastest growing demographic of the UK workforce, there will always be a large section of this workforce managing their own unique set of effects, and symptoms can be diverse. There are many things that can be done to manage these effectively and they may well not impact women’s work lives at all, in fact, many women thrive throughout this time and experience the most successful periods in their careers. However, it is important to acknowledge that not everyone’s experience is the same. As Menopause in the Workplace points out, by talking about it openly, raising awareness and putting the right support in place for those who need it, perhaps we could get to a point where menopause is no longer an issue in the workplace at all.

The pandemic and its impact on women’s careers and personal lives

I wrote a short article recently for Women In Social Housing, on how women in the workplace have been affected by the pandemic, which highlighted how women, particularly women of colour, have been affected most when it comes to workplace disruption due to Covid-19, and it’s alignment with increases in domestic and racial abuse. On top of this, there has been a backwards step for a lot of women in their professions, with many having to reduce work hours and set back their careers in order to manage extra familial responsibilities, losing out on retained positions due to organisations reducing their workloads and many female-centric industries being put on hold due to lockdown measures. In a recent global survey by Deloitte, nearly 82% of women said their lives have been negatively disrupted by the pandemic, and nearly 70% of women who have experienced these disruptions are concerned their career growth may be limited as a result.

Despite all the barriers women are still facing at home, with health and in the workplace, there is positive news and cause for celebration. Women, on the whole, are a resilient bunch, and most in the survey foresee the potential to progress by taking on more responsibilities at work, anticipating a pay increase in the next year and, as long as they are supported, intend to stay loyal to their current employers for the foreseeable future.

The ball’s in the court of employers

When questioned about what women felt would be required for them to move up in their organisations and what would be considered when deciding whether to progress within them, the top consideration (41%) was whether women were given the opportunity for a healthy work/life balance. Second was whether experiences of non-inclusive behaviors (e.g., microaggressions and exclusion from meetings/projects) were dealt with effectively, and next on the list came a lack of, or opportunity for, flexible working arrangements.

Those employers who have embraced flexible working, prioritised mental health and have given adequate support to those employees who needed it most before and/or throughout the pandemic, have not only retained more of their workforce and supported the career progression of more female workers, but they have also positively impacted the entire workforce and their organisations have come out of the past year stronger. It’s a no-brainer that when we recognise with equity all our employees and treat everyone with empathy, compassion, and as individuals, we achieve a much more successful collective outcome. These traits, which were traditionally seen as female leadership traits, are actually traits every effective modern leader possesses (Leadership Traits That Transcend Gender, Chief Learning Officer), and this is evident whether on a business, community or global scale. As more women have had the opportunity to become great leaders, these common traits simply become more apparent in them.

As well as our work supporting women’s employment networking groups such as WISH, Greenacre have been developing a Leadership Programme, designed to help instil the most effective modern leadership traits and behaviours into our future leaders, and to help create a more supported, collaborative, equal and diverse workforce across not only our own housing industry, but also working with others to help drive these values across all industries in the UK. When we all work together to address inequality, the benefits are felt by everyone. If you’d like to find out more about what we do, please feel free to get in touch. Happy International Women’s Day!

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