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International Women’s Day – another year on, is it a case of one step forward, two steps back?

Posted: 07/03/2023

As we look ahead to International Women’s Day on 8 March, the news last week that the FTSE 350 has achieved its target of 40% of board positions being held by women, and has done so three years ahead of schedule, is to be celebrated. Unsurprisingly, a deeper dive into the report by the government–backed FTSE Women Leaders Review does not make for quite such positive reading – women are still woefully underrepresented in the most senior roles such as chief executive or finance director, for example. However, it is good to report something positive in a 12 month period that has once again seen little progress for women in the workplace.

While employers are seemingly more prepared than ever to champion the cause of equality, too often it can seem that they are only paying lip service to this important issue. Rare is the employer who cannot produce an equal opportunities policy, yet how often do these languish in a metaphorical drawer, while casual sexism and harassment are common in the workplace? Similarly, although strides are being made in flexible working, for example the government’s commitment to making the right to request (note, not be granted) flexible working a ‘day one right’, in practice this frequently means those working flexibly - often although not always women - frantically trying to cram five days’ work into four to prove they are ‘equal’ to their full-time colleagues.

The recent Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey, in partnership with LeanIn.Org, has identified in the US what it calls the ‘great break-up’ - a trend of women leaders leaving their jobs at a faster rate than ever before. Fed up of waiting for their employers to create a modern workplace that recognises their capabilities, women are looking for new roles in other organisations where the corporate culture and working patterns better fit their needs.

Other women across a wide range of industries are choosing to start their own business, and why not? If you can’t find a workplace that meets your needs, why not create your own that is bespoke to you? After all, as the saying has it, necessity is the mother of invention and, for women in the modern workplace, what may once have been perceived as ‘nice to have’ is now very much a necessity.

According to a recent review led by the chief executive of NatWest Group, Alison Rose, in 2022 female entrepreneurs created more new businesses in the UK than ever before, more than twice the level in 2018, and female-led businesses now represent a fifth of all businesses in the UK, up from 16% in 2018. These figures are all the more significant, given the current economic climate. As Rose comments: “Female entrepreneurs respond to challenging economic times by establishing new businesses and setting out on their own.”

The trend for women going it alone is hardly unsurprising, given the workplace challenges we have seen over the past year – a widening gender pay gap, lack of transparency over equal pay, the government’s decision not to legislate for menopause leave or to make menopause a protected characteristic for the purposes of equality legislation, and more headlines relating to sex discrimination in the workplace, with women being forced to fight for basic equality rights in the courts and tribunals. In addition, according to recent research by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the cost of childcare in the UK is currently the highest in the developed world and for many women, not just the lower-paid, the traditional employment model is simply not an option.

Of course, going it alone and creating a bespoke employment model is not an option - or the solution - for all women, and the regular income that comes with traditional employment is hard to reject, even if the traditional model lets women down in so many respects. In the shadow of recession, and with the cost-of-living spiralling, leaving a current role for new employment or going it alone is a daunting prospect for many. However, as we welcome International Women’s Day 2023, with almost a quarter of the twenty-first century behind us, perhaps it is time, in the words of Aretha Franklin and Eurythmics, that ‘sisters are doin’ it for themselves’.

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