To mark International Women’s Day 2023, University of Salford Business School welcomed inspiring women from the Greater Manchester business community to a roundtable conversation to tackle this year’s theme – embrace equity. The roundtable debated how far barriers faced by women in the workplace have been broken down.
Moderated by Claire-Marie Boggiano, Director and Coach, Lurig Leadership and Change, participants told stories about their own lived experience of the barriers they’ve faced throughout their careers. They also shared their thoughts on what they believe business leaders and policymakers need to do to fully embrace equity.
While there has been considerable progress on some measures in the last 48 years, since 1975 when the UN officially recognised the 8 March as International Women’s Day, the current landscape for women in business and working parents remains challenging. Recent data from Pregnant Then Screwed revealed three-in-four mothers (76%) who pay for childcare, say it no longer makes financial sense for them to work[i]. In addition, while the latest FTSE Women Leaders Review revealed women now make up 40% of FTSE 350 boards[ii], only one-third are in leadership positions – on the current trajectory, it’s expected to take approximately 70 years for an equal split[iii].
The barriers women continue to face in the workplace
During the roundtable, Dr Ayesha Chowdhury, Lecturer in Law, Salford Business School shared her experiences of juggling a career and family life. She said: “The prime time to raise a family coincides with important career milestones and in my case, finishing my PhD. At just 35 I was classed as a high-risk ‘geriatric mother’ and there’s little support in place for those managing being the matriarch of their family, while trying to develop professionally. We should be focusing on how we can get more women into the workplace, not putting up barriers that make life more difficult.
“My advice for anybody looking to progress/starting out in their careers, is to know their priorities when they’re planning their future. We often plan the professional aspects but forget our personal priorities. Women also need to stop apologising just for being a woman or a mother. When we do this, we bring ourselves down unconsciously, but we really need to be doing the opposite.”
Claire-Marie continued: “We fare the worst in the developed world when it comes to cost of childcare and then to add to this, when we hit our 50s, we face another huge barrier in the menopause. In addition to managing the effects of the menopause we’re juggling so much, typically caring for elderly parents, still having teenage children at home and a busy household to run, on top of navigating the world of work which really isn’t set up for us to operate successfully. It’s no wonder women in their 50s are leaving the workforce in their droves, as it’s an impossible situation to manage.”
Rebecca Collins, Managing Director, Organisational Design Consultant and Executive Coach, Chapel House Training and Consultancy, and Honorary Industry Fellow at Salford Business School, said: “The fact there’s a strategy in place to entice older women back into the workplace showcases we’ve really not come a long way. What we are also seeing is women harnessing their entrepreneurial skills and circumventing those organisational barriers by creating their own spaces and setting up their own companies, as they just couldn’t get to where they wanted to and into those board level positions they deserve in the corporate world. The other sad reality is that on many occasions, women can be a barrier to other women, forgetting sometimes the difficulties they faced once. They are able to affect meaningful change or sometimes take the attitude that because they had to fight tooth for their success, so too should the next generation of women in the workplace.”
Liz Larner, Deputy Dean, Salford Business School, continued: “As a mother to daughters, the fact that the gender pay gap continues to exist is embarrassing. It’s also impossible for many women to come back to the workplace due to the sheer fact they simply cannot afford to without cost-effective childcare.”
Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director, Peninsula, and Honorary Industry Fellow at Salford Business School added: “Upon doing the Myers-Briggs personality test, my most dominant colour was green which is typically diplomatic and caring. When I did this, it was frowned upon though as this isn’t seen as strong. There’s a perception that women are fluffy, but we’re not. Women are strong and the opinion that we’re weak needs to change, even if our personality type is more caring than fiery and competitive.”
Taking action to break down barriers and embrace equity
To make matters worse, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is rapidly progressing through Parliament and proposes the removal of 4,000 employment-related laws. Many of these protect women in the workplace, for example, equal pay, protection against maternity and pregnancy discrimination, paid maternity and parental leave, as well as protection against unfair treatment such as unfair dismissal or being overlooked for promotion while on leave. While the impact of this proposed change is not known, it is highly anticipated that the result will make work more challenging for women.
Dr Francine Morris, Associate Dean for Enterprise & Engagement, Salford Business School, said: “It’s worrying that to this day the gender pay gap actually fluctuates around what men are doing. For instance, when mens’ pay goes into decline or more men leave the labour market, the gender pay gap starts to close. Then there’s the pension gap – when we temporarily leave the labour market for caring reasons, we experience a gap in our pension contributions; meaning we’re more likely to struggle with financial instability later in life than men.
“We need more women on boards and not just in advisory board member positions – in leadership roles, so they have a real say and can embed real change. Government policymakers should be implementing a minimum quota for women in leadership roles on boards, then we’ll start to see genuine improvement.”
Louise Hall, Lecturer in Law (Practice), Solicitor and SILKS Lead, Salford Business School, added: “Beyond teaching our daughters to use their voice, it’s essential we also teach our sons. The next generation gives me hope as they’re not afraid to speak up for what they believe in. They won’t stand for tokenism and that’s the level of appetite for change we need in the world.”
Dr Kathy Hartley, Lecturer in People Management, Salford Business School, continued: “How we structure organisations and that organisational design piece needs to be addressed by some workplaces. They are often built around traditional, male hierarchical ways of working and a lot women prefer to work in a different way. As women, we have different experiences and we can bring a lot to the workplace from other areas of our lives. Many of our skills are transferrable and this isn’t always valued, as it doesn’t necessarily fit into traditional ways of operating or career frameworks used by organisations, and I think that needs to change.”
Mary Fashanu, Agile Delivery Manager, CAVU, and entrepreneur, commented: “If a company wants to improve on equality, diversity and inclusion they need to be doing it at board level and there should be a woman leading that conversation, not others speaking on our behalf. More and more are being vocal and not accepting, which gives me hope for the future.”
Kate continued: “Something that’s always resonated with me is that I believe women can have it all. It might not all be perfect all of the time, but we can. We can progress in our careers and be successful, while having a family. But some things, like picking the kids up from school every day, may slide and it’s important we’re not hard on ourselves for that.”
Rebecca concluded: “A lot of organisations are re-evaluating the world of work and while it’s slow to yield results, leaders need to start thinking differently and holistically to see the change we all want and need.”