Shaping the government’s new Economic Empowerment Strategy for women: a summary report

I was recently privileged to be invited to help shape a new strategy the government’s Gender Equality and Economic Empowerment office is launching soon.

They asked everyone involved to invite our networks to share our perspectives on what achieving gender equality and economic empowerment means for women and I was inundated with contributions from incredible people of different ages, backgrounds and stages of life.

Whilst many of the views and experiences they have trusted me with make for saddening and maddening reading, everyone is of the same opinion: it’s a good thing that we’ve been invited to participate in – what feels to me, anyway – one of the most significant conversations of our generation.

This stuff matters so much, for us and for our children – and for their children too. We can’t expect change to happen if we aren’t part of it, can we?

I sent the team this summary report of the feedback I gathered earlier this week and felt it was important to share it here too as it makes for fascinating reading.

If you have any questions or feedback about the report or would like to know more about the strategy, I’d love to hear from you!

Question 1: What is the single most important contributing factor to achieving women’s economic empowerment? Why?

Equal pay.

“I had a horrific experience on maternity leave when I discovered the guy covering my position was being paid 60% more than me, with less experience; he subsequently took over my role when I left at the same inflated salary. Apparently there’s no equal pay case here, based on legal advice. The bigger impact, however, is the clear difference the company places in terms of value of employee. Women who don’t feel equally valued will not stay.”

Workplace culture.

“There are too many boys’ clubs socially and in the workplace. These mindsets needs to be integrated with a diverse range of “non-similar…look/background” people.”

“Family policies and equal pay / job policies need to provide women with more protection. The number of times women leave work to have children and some are scared to talk about having children as it may impact their chances of getting a job and paid competitively is open for abuse. This needs to be an issue that should be discussed in a company’s equality policies and job descriptions.”

Equality in the workplace.

“The government has some great policies that do not discriminate against gender/race/background. However, there are still companies that require people to declare these demographics as part of their application process and this is an automatic promotion that there should be inequality. I am put off applying for a role where I have to declare this information because it completely contradicts the company’s need for equality and more importantly it tells me that this is something that the company will consider as part of their hiring / progression processes.”

Flexible working practices.

“Many companies have a negative view of truly flexible working and working mums. Until more dads and people without families also start asking for flexible working patterns this will continue.”

“A lack of men asking for flexible working is another major part of this issue, as it adds to the stigma of ‘choosing your children over your career’.  If more men worked flexibly, the reasons for why you do so would not be an issue.”

In the majority of cases if you want to become flexible, you have to leave your job and take up another (lower level) position elsewhere.  I work in construction – I have had one position offered to me as a part time role in 7 years of looking.  The industry is considerably male biased and outdated in this regard, and this is reflected in the gender pay gap statistics, which are shameful.  Since I have become part time I have not been offered any promotion, in fact been passed over by my full time colleagues. There is no female empowerment within construction currently.”

Gender roles in the home.

“Many women assume the traditional role of taking on the bulk of the household management and primary caregiver responsibility as well as working. Society must catch up urgently and men and women should be able to easily divide the labour at home in the same ways as they are both able to contribute to the household. Men should be able to work in ways that support their involvement with the family and enable them to assume more of the caring responsibility. Until we have equality in the home AND at work, we won’t have any equality at all.”

Childcare costs.

Female employment is hampered by exorbitant childcare fees and inflexible and traditional working practice. If the government were to totally fund nursery places as in the Scandinavian countries it would allow a vast swathe of women to return to work after having their children. This in combination with a much greater uptake in shared maternity/paternity leave would mean that no one was jeopardising their career to do what is natural – having a baby!”

How women are perceived by wider society

“Women worry so much about how they are perceived, whether they are allowed to do or say certain things, whether they are too xxxx (whatever) or not enough xxxx (whatever). So much about our society undermines girls and women in subtle ways. Insecurity leads to young girls not seeing each other as allies but as threats. The pressure to conform is huge. This continues throughout life. If we can get young girls to value their individuality and feel good about themselves and learn how to trust and respect other girls that would result in women not holding themselves back later in life.”

Question 2. What are some immediate, practical changes that would make the biggest difference? Why? 

  1.  Require companies to offer flexible working for every role at all levels, as a day one right.
    “We must change how we work so that work and family life are compatible.”“This requires complete culture change so it becomes the norm for everyone – irrespective of gender – to work flexibly. This single change would enable more women to return so they can contribute to their households and the economy and be financially independent without being forced into self-employment or low paid flexible roles as so many currently are. Implementing an enforceable requirement for companies to advertise all jobs as flexible from day one of employment would help greatly with this.”

    “This is about skilled jobs being available in formats other than full time.  Jobs need to be created that could realistically be done over, say, 10 hours a week, 20 hours a week, 25 hours a week etc.  This too is likely to involve funding an education initiative to change the way employers think about how they create job roles.”

    Hopefully in a few years, my husband can drop a day or maybe even two so we could even up the scales a bit. He’s too scared now that cutting his working hours would mean he would never be in the running for promotions. Until then, 99% of domestic duties will stay on my shoulders whilst I try to keep my business up and the family thriving too.”

  2. Greater accountability for business in respect of equality.
    “Publication of equality ratio by gender/race/age, etc similar to Gender Pay Gap reporting. Why? To ensure companies work harder to ensure equality is not a tick box exercise but something critical for all individuals within a company.”

  3. Support with the exorbitant costs of childcare from age 6 months.
    “By extending the early years funding scheme and incentivising companies to provide subsidised or free on-site childcare facilities, for example. This would make it more financially viable for many thousands more females to return to work after having a child.”

  4. Encourage greater take-up of shared parental leave.
    “How many households can realistically drop immediately to the statutory level of pay if their employer doesn’t enhance the pay when taking SPL? Very few.”

    “How can the government expect any progress on equality if it doesn’t fund maternity and shared parental leave in the same way? Until it is properly funded (i.e. equally) take up will continue to be pitiful.”

    The more women & men share leave, the less of a ‘female’ issue it becomes.”

  5. Provide personalised programmes of support to people returning to work.
    “Companies must acknowledge that the parent is a different person when they return. They should provide support, compassion and understanding that the transition is hard, and that there is a life outside of work that needs managing too.”

  6. Implement actions that show the role women play as mothers is valued….
    Too often women are disadvantaged because they are or have become mothers.  Mindsets need to change to VALUE and RESPECT this key difference between men and women, and not see it as a reason that women can’t progress. Funding {is needed} to educate senior leaders in how women who are mothers can be VALUED in the workplace – because all too often women are pushed out of the workplace because they are mothers.”

  7. …and also understand that parenting isn’t the only barrier to success.
    “Just as women hit the prime of their career they start suffering the symptoms of peri-menopause and start being taken less seriously because of their age. Women who let their hair go grey, who change body shape or who suffer hot flushes all find these are career limiting at exactly the time they are approaching being Board material. We have to give more focus to the needs of mid-life women, not just young women with kids.”

  8. Make leaders driving change more visible.
    “We need more visible female leaders, within businesses and in the media. Leadership isn’t just about those at the top, it’s about those driving powerful and positive change at all levels – we need to embrace that concept to increase the perception of value.”

  9. Make parenting facilities and activities inclusive for dads and partners.
    “If mother-baby groups became parent-baby groups, or if dads were more welcome at toddler clubs or the school gate and if men were entitled to the same paternity leave as women there would be far less stigma or discomfort to men playing more of a role in parenting (as I think many want to).”

Question 3: What do we need to change for future generations? 

  1. Promote equality in relation to gender roles: Managing workloads at home and at work needs to be equal.
    Our parents prepared a generation of us girls for a world of work where we could do anything we wanted, but they forgot to prepare our generation of guys to share the workload at home. Schools need to give lessons to boys and girls about cooking, running a household, DIY, budgeting (including when your pay might drop dramatically!) time management, allowing plenty of time for rest and play and balance in relationships.”“Local communities, groups, schools and families need support so they can strongly embed equality learning. Government sponsored TV shows should promote more equality.”
  2. Eradicate the male/female bias over flexible working.
    “If it became the norm across both sexes, both men and women would have a better work/life balance without a cost to their careers.”

  3. Engineer a culture shift on how caring is perceived by wider society.
    “In many countries the family is seen as the most important fundamental part of society, and families receive proper financial support and childcare help.”Yes, they may pay higher taxes, but this enables better child development, better employee development, with a view to creating a better economic foundation. Parenting is viewed as an equal task between parents.”

  4. Provide education for females to help them recognise signs of financial abuse.
    “We need to reduce vulnerability to controlling and coercive behaviours in partners.”

  5. Stop calculating the value of a woman working based on her salary minus childcare.
    “Childcare is a household cost, not a burden to be placed solely on the mother to justify.”

  6. Focus on mentoring and role models for young females.
    Work on girls’ relationships with each other. Provide lots of options in terms of mentors, role models, different ways to live and work beyond the traditional model, let them know they don’t need to “have it all” – that was never possible – but to think about what they do want and work towards that.”

    “Role models in the working world need to be celebrated more and included in the school learning curriculum. For instance; all I remember in the History classes were just men and war…I have learnt inspirational facts about women and people of colour in their contribution to History which I never learnt/gained from school. I respect what I learnt but I always found it limiting.”
  7. Give girls the skills to form strong, healthy relationships with other girls.
    “Given that more bullying in the workplace is women bullying women versus men bullying women this would transform workplace dynamics in the future.”
(Photo from when baby Neo and I went to Whitehall to
meet with members of the government’s Flexible Working taskforce)
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