Blog: Three Challenges for International Women's Day 2021

Author: Jennifer Liston Smith, Head of Though Leadership

8th March is International Women's Day, with the theme this year #ChooseToChallenge. So, let’s look at three gender-related challenges that many leading employers are rising to. Are you among those leaders?

Challenge 1. Report promptly on the Gender Pay Gap

The requirement to report gender pay gaps since 2017 has had a positive impact. The figures have changed a little and awareness has grown a lot. In a Government Equalities Office (GEO) survey of 900 employers, 70% agreed it had increased awareness of gender pay issues at board level.

Reporting was paused in 2020 while UK businesses adapted to the demands of the pandemic. So, figures from April 2019 were skipped by many, though around half did still report voluntarily. This year we have another 6 months to report the latest GPG figures, by October. This gives breathing space to those employers who worry that the 2020 figures will be complicated, or skewed by furlough leave. There is, however guidance on this. Employees furloughed on the 2020 snapshot date are treated as being on the payroll in headcount terms, clarifying which employers must report (those with 250+ on the payroll). To further ease any confusion, only those furloughed employees whose pay was fully topped up are counted in the pay gap reporting figures.

Bodies promoting leadership and equality are calling urgently for employers to report promptly: Challenge 1: Report in a timely way so the gender pay gap stays on the agenda.

Challenge 2. Continue to empower working parents

Two important reports were published in February: ‘Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact’ – from the Women and Equalities Select Committee arrived on 9th February. Then the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work annual report was published 22nd February 

The APPG report states: “The Government should establish a taskforce on women’s employment with a focus on a gendered approach to economic recovery”. The Select Committee report, among a great deal of data, notes (paragraph 13) that “The pandemic has caused great disruption to care responsibilities. The gender gap in total childcare time increased over the pandemic; women increased the number of hours devoted to care by more than men, putting an additional burden on working mothers”.

Many employers recognised the pressures on working parents of any gender in the first lockdown. Since January, there is a danger that with new budgets and new targets, we might have forgotten that home life has been as full-on across the last two months as it was for most of last year. The daily triathlon (working, parenting, caring) has continued, and the schedule of working around the clock to deliver on all fronts has not got easier. It has become harder, more exhausting and more worrying.

The next phase, with return to school could be fragile too. In our recent Modern Families Index Spotlight research , the support most looked for by working parents included these top five:

  • More autonomy and control over managing work time
  • A clear message that flexible working is positively viewed
  • Employee wellbeing as a clear and visible area of focus
  • Ensure line managers have knowledge / tools for managing work life balance
  • Access to employer-subsidised childcare

They are fairly modest wishes, and we should prioritise them as working parents continue the juggle. In particular, approaches like this could be part of our strategy to avoid more working mothers falling out of the workplace or falling behind in careers as the day-to-day school challenges and educational catch-up worries continue. Challenge 2: be aware of the gendered impact of the pandemic and empower all working parents, inclusively.

Challenge 3. Get beyond gender stereotypes

The official International Women’s Day site quotes Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist on the need for "collective efforts of all who care about human rights". There’s another Steinem quote we might highlight under the #ChooseToChallenge heading. It comes from the Top Ten things Gloria Steinem wanted for Christmas in 2015 
At number 7: “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons – but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”

I heard this theme of the limitations imposed on young lives repeatedly as one of the Commissioners on the Fawcett Society Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood. The Commission gathered evidence showing how early expectations around gender hold us all back. This BBC video demonstrates it well showing that a boy put into a dress is steered away from toys that develop dexterity and exploration and towards looking at soft, pretty things. The baby girl given a boy’s name and clothes gets lifted energetically onto a racing car where she can experiment with agility and risk taking.

Bright Horizons is now working with the Fawcett Society to support the communication of practical steps we can all take. We also have an internal Knowledge Community led by Director of Early Childhood, Caroline Wright, meeting regularly to explore themes in pedagogy and share practical actions. A recent session focused on challenging and reducing any gendered assumptions. Challenge 3: Whether with colleagues, young people or older people let’s question our own gendered expectations and ensure we are not limiting the potential of others with our assumptions.