Why Workplace Equality isn't Just About the Gender Pay Gap
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Whether it’s Hollywood actors speaking out against blatant inequality or new legislation requiring UK companies to reveal pay inequalities in their workforce the gender pay gap is finally getting the attention it deserves from the media, politicians, organisations and ordinary people.
However, for women in the workplace, whilst the gender pay gap is important, it is not the only issue at play when it comes to advancing gender equality. So, what other obstacles are women facing in the workplace?
1. Sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is any sexual behaviour that is unwanted, offensive, and that makes the subject of the behaviour feel uncomfortable, intimidated, humiliated or scared. It can cover a huge range of behaviours including verbal harassment. This can entail sexual comments, emails, jokes or photos. It also includes physical harassment, such as unwanted touching, kissing and sexual assault.
In 2016, a ground-breaking study called ‘Still just a bit of banter?’ was published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The TUC polled and gathered testimonies from union members in England and Wales about their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. The study found that 52% of all women polled had experienced some form of sexual harassment.
Other key findings include:
35% of women had heard comments of a sexual nature being made about other women in the workplace.
28% of women had been subjected to comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes.
Almost 25% of women had experienced unwanted touching (such as a hand on the knee or lower back).
In cases of sexual harassment towards women, nearly one in five report the perpetrator as a male colleague such as their direct manager or other male colleague with a superior position of authority.
2. Gender stereotyping
Gender stereotyping is about creating preconceived gender roles about how men and women are expected to act, speak, dress and conduct themselves, based on their sex. Considering all nurses to be female and all firefighters to be male are examples of gender stereotypes. We picture nurses as female due to the stereotype that women are kind-natured and gentle, suiting them to a caring role. In contrast, we picture firefighters as male due to the stereotype that men are fit and strong enough to do such a physically demanding job. These stereotypes come from an unconscious bias that we all have as a result of culture and history.
Gender stereotypes contribute towards discrimination and preconceptions which disadvantage women in the workplace. One stereotype is that women are not ‘dominant’ enough to make good leaders or decision makers. They are believed to let their emotions get in the way of good leadership and to be afraid of demanding hard work from employees.
Another stereotype is that women are not as well-educated as men. Historically, women left education early and were not encouraged to have any sort of academic aspirations in case it undermined their attachment to the home. Although this has changed in a lot of the Western world today and in fact in the UK, more girls are attending university than boys, this change has not translated to the workplace.
A further stereotype is that, if they become mothers, women cannot be as dedicated to their work. They may need to take a career break to have children, they may be less able to work long or inflexible hours. Big projects may be more likely to be assigned to men because managers believe they can count on them to fully dedicate themselves to the work.
Gender stereotypes lead to wage discrimination, disable women from achieving their full potential and can result in ‘hiring and firing discrimination’. This is where men are favoured over women in selection processes and women are dismissed before men on the basis of these gender stereotypes. Stereotypes are also a contributor to the ‘glass ceiling’ – a situation whereby women can see the path to the top of the organisation but cannot get there due to invisible social barriers brought about by the underlying and often unintentional sexism within the culture of a company or industry.
3. Maternity leave issues
According to the TUC, the UK has the third worst maternity leave system in Europe, after Ireland and Slovakia. Under UK law, women can take up to a year of maternity leave and will be paid for 39 weeks of that year. However, the payment plan leaves a lot to be desired. For the first 6 weeks, women are paid 90% of their weekly earnings before tax, but after that it drops to £151.20 or stays at 90% of their average weekly earnings, depending on whichever is lower.
As a result, many women have no choice but to return to work before the year is up in order to pay the bills – long before they are fully ready to go back.
In addition to the financial aspect of maternity leave, women also face discrimination during pregnancy and maternity leave. A report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2010 found that:
11% of mothers had been either dismissed, made compulsorily redundant where other employees were not, or treated so poorly they had to leave their job due to being pregnant or on maternity leave.
20% of mothers had experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer and/or colleagues.
10% of mothers had been discouraged by their employer from attending antenatal appointments.
What can organisations, politicians and individuals do about these issues?
Organisations can provide training to ensure that all employees understand what constitutes sexual harassment and what the ramifications can be, as well as what gender stereotyping is and how to overcome it. They can also establish a whistleblowing procedure to allow employees to report cases of discrimination anonymously and respond publicly to inappropriate behaviour to demonstrate the consequences.
Politicians can make improvements to existing legislation and establish better regulation of compliance with the law, particularly with regard to maternity leave. Additionally, a review into the maternity leave system should be carried out and improvements made, perhaps by looking at examples from other countries.
As individuals, we can and we should make gender stereotyping and discrimination an open topic of discussion and empower ourselves to call it out when we see it. This guide can be a starting point – why not share it with friends and start a discussion?
For more insightful resources, visit our Feminism & Gender Issues section.