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Covid-19 has highlighted the gender imbalance in workplaces

Ann Swain, CEO - APSCo

Over the last few years, there have been on-going discussions in HR circles about diversity and inclusion, and while some progress has been seen, women are still significantly underrepresented in leadership roles and the gender pay gap is still a huge issue which must be tackled.

Despite efforts and campaigns by women’s rights groups to close the gap, the results for 2019 found that it had widened in favour of men, with 78 per cent of the biggest companies in Britain reporting a gap. In fact, since 2012 there has been little meaningful change in the gender pay gap, with the gulf narrowing by just 0.6% for full-time employees.

However, regardless of the gap decreasing just slightly, making it mandatory for businesses to report on their gender imbalances was a step in the right direction and encouraged companies to be accountable for the inequality that exists in their firms. But, due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Government has decided that this year employers do not have to report gender pay gaps.

With so much disruption around the world right now, and businesses facing unprecedented challenges, it’s vital that employers don’t lose sight of the importance of addressing D&I. In fact, it’s perhaps more important now than ever before. Recently, research has revealed that women have suffered a larger fall in earnings in the United Kingdom and are losing their jobs in greater numbers than men during the Covid-19 pandemic.

How female workers have been impacted during Covid-19

According to a recent report from the Resolution Foundation, a think tank that works on economic issues facing low earners, only 10 percent of lower earners—defined as “those in the bottom half of the earnings distribution”—are able to work from home, and according to the UK Women’s Budget Group, 69 percent of those lower earners are women.

This highlights that while increasing the number of female employees in the workplace is certainly positive, it’s vital that we also help ensure women are fairly represented at all levels within a business and provided with the opportunity to take on high-earning and meaningful roles.

The number of women at board level

Recent figures revealed that many of the UK’s top firms are nowhere near the Hampton-Alexander Review’s target of a third of board-level and leadership positions to be filled by women. Shockingly, one in five of the top 350 UK companies have been warned about the lack of gender diversity at senior levels. The review has singled out 24 FTSE 250 companies which only have one woman on their board and 35 FTSE 350 firms which have all-male executive committees.

One of the industries looking to tackle this issue is the recruitment sector. Like finance and technology, the recruitment profession is perceived as having a ‘masculine’ environment, which has consequently contributed to a dearth of female representation in leadership roles.

A recent Women in Recruitment report found that almost a third (30%) of recruitment firms have less than 5% female leaders at board level and another third (32%), only have between 21-50%.

Representation at board level is in single digits for many firms despite over two thirds of recruitment companies (70%) having more than 50% female representation at support staff level and two-fifths having more than 50% at recruitment/ resourcer level.

Furthermore, the report also found that over two fifths of recruitment firms have an overall attrition rate of between 21% and 100%. However, when focussing on female attrition, a third of those (33%) are women within sales functions, while only 16% are females within support functions.

Similar statistics can be found for various sectors, and unless action is taken to change this, we will continue to see women failing to reach their full potential, and businesses missing out on top talent.

What HR leaders can do to support women get to board level

So, what can HR leaders do to help more women reach board level at their firms? There are a number of initiatives that can be implemented to better attract, retain and support women such as family friendly policies, flexible hours and enhanced maternity benefits. However, one of the most powerful tools for helping women progress in their careers is often overlooked – mentoring.

Essentially, this is a professional relationship in which an experienced person assists another individual in developing skills and knowledge that will enhance them in their professional and personal growth.  The great thing about mentoring is that it can help women regardless of which stage they are at in their life or career.

Mentoring is more than giving advice, it’s about motivating and empowering others, encouraging them to understand themselves and their goals. Through sharing expert advice and experiences, women will be more equipped to take on the challenges that arise in their professional career and more knowledgeable on how to take control of their development.

Making D&I a priority

Making D&I a priority not only the ‘right’ thing to do in terms of equality, it also makes complete business sense.

Various research studies suggest that organisations that respect and value diversity, brought by both women and men, are better able to attract and retain high performing employees and improve operational performance. Therefore, it is in a company’s best interest to encourage their female employees to actively take on positions of leadership, while ensuring that their recruitment practices are fair and equal.

A team with greater diversity in thought can allow for targets to be reached with creativity and more efficiency. A blend of female and male talent often results in better decision-making and plays an essential role in a company’s long-term success.

What has to change?

Covid-19 has drastically impacted businesses and forced companies to re-evaluate how they operate. As we slowly return back to whatever ‘normal’ is, having the right tools in place to ensure women are thriving in the workplace going forward, and the support systems in place to guide them into leadership roles should be part of any forward business planning.

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