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8th Mar, 2024

Helen Clark
Helen Clark
Job Title
Divisional Managing Director

In June 1968, a group of women at Ford’s Dagenham plant went on strike. 

The sewing machinists walked out over poor pay, with women being traditionally paid less than men doing similar roles. The strike is heralded as a landmark in labour-relations and ultimately led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. 

Fast forward almost 54 years and gender equality within the workplace is much improved. While there is still a way to go, women fill more seats in the boardroom than ever before and can show up to work feeling empowered, able to embrace the opportunities to develop skills that were previously denied to them, gain independence through their income, and reach professional goals. 

The first International Women’s Day was celebrated just seven years after the Dagenham strike, and – as we celebrate this year’s version on March 8 - it remains as important an affirmation of the rights of women as it was then. 

It is a chance to celebrate women’s achievements and the positive impact they have in the workplace, with this year’s key theme of inspiring inclusion promoting the interests and aspirations of women and encouraging the recruitment, retention, and development of diverse talent. 

What is delaying further progress? 

There are three main factors I would say are central to examining why, despite all the progress that has been made, women are still all too often seen as second-class citizens in the workplace. 

The impact of motherhood and the challenges that come with managing the flexibility involved in being a working mother is key. 

Research from Henley Business School into the ‘motherhood penalty’ shows as much as 80% of the gender pay gap stems from the time some women choose to stop working to have and raise children. 

Those women who are coming back to work having been off caring for children, usually as the main care provider, often feel they don’t have the necessary skills or experience to do the jobs they are in. 

These views are not only held internally, but externally as well. Women are overlooked because they are seen as having been on the school run rather than in the boardroom. And typically, long career gaps on CV’s raise red flags to employers. 

It’s 2024 of course, and men are undoubtedly doing more to help look after children, but the stigma that women are not as good at their job because they have been concentrating on motherhood rather than work still exists and needs to change. 

There is also a real disparity when it comes to the roles that men and women will apply for. It has been found that men will apply for a job if they tick just 60% of the requirements. For women, that figure is 90 or even 100%. 

There are a couple of things at play within that. 

Firstly, there are some women who just don’t have the confidence to apply for these roles, often due to the fear of rejection or that they don’t have the necessary experience. When you consider the external view that many employers have of women who have been out of work due to caring for children, it's clear to see why there may be a lack of confidence.   

Secondly, there is the idea that women applying for these roles are simply being more honest and realistic about their experience and skills.  

But how can we encourage more women to ambitiously apply for these roles without taking away that honesty? 

Employers need to shift the focus from rigid criteria to ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ skills, promote an inclusive company culture, provide clarity in the hiring process, highlight success stories, and understand that it’s highly unlikely to find a candidate who perfectly matches every criterion, so instead focus on transferable skills as well as attitude and mindset. 

Gender stereotyping 

Even in what I have said so far there is a risk of gender stereotyping. That risk becomes far worse when analysing the way women have historically been seen within the workplace. 

Inequality remains in businesses up and down the country, with men occupying more of the top positions. This is fed by all the reasons we have discussed so far, but sometimes by out and out sexism. 

I recently attended a presentation where the audience was told to picture a series of people – a pilot, a surgeon and so on. Most people were immediately thinking of a male pilot, or a male surgeon at the operating table.  

While this is not necessarily outright sexism, it does highlight the internal biases inherent to the way people think. 

When you look at IT and technology this inequality is particularly stark. 

Only 26% of employees in technology roles are women, a figure that was even lower at 19% as recently as 2019, while just five per cent of leadership positions are held by women. Why is this? It probably comes down to a variety of reasons, many of them historic. 

Women and young girls are not seeing other women in those jobs, so they don’t feel it is for them. Employers are not seeing women in those roles, so they assume they should be employing men. And then you look at the way those subjects were historically taught in schools – boys studied IT and technology while girls did home economics or food and nutrition. 

That’s why at Reed Talent Solutions, we are committed to advocating for women in the workplace and – through the wider Reed group - to initiatives such as the Women in Technology mentoring programme and community. 

Why are women are still feeling the pressure of glass ceilings? 

We conducted a survey for International Women’s Day this year, asking why women are still feeling the pressure of glass ceilings. 

The results of that survey showed the three factors I have outlined – navigating motherhood and a career, sexism and bias in the workplace, and that lack of confidence among some women – were evidenced as the greatest barriers to women in the workplace today. 

The obvious question this poses is how we can address these issues and how we can, ultimately, bring about more equality in the workforce? 

I think the first thing we must do is continue to educate people. 

It is important to understand what bias actually is. Unless you understand it, how can you tweak your own behaviour? Analysing why you make certain decisions and the views they are based on, as well as the impact those decisions have on others, will naturally drive down inequality. 

There is never an end point when it comes to this process. Society is constantly evolving, as are the businesses within it. 

International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to elevate those women who really make a difference, and by that I don’t necessarily mean top executives or those who have broken that glass ceiling. Of course, we should celebrate those women, but we also need to recognise the phenomenal work done by women every single day in all areas of the business world. 

That could include someone who has come through adversity or taken on a really difficult challenge in life. It could be someone who comes into work every day, works hard, hits all their targets, and just adds to their business’ success by doing what they do. 

International Women’s Day is about championing the idea that everyone should have a seat at the table. We’ve all got a voice that is worth hearing. 

Just like those ladies back in 1968.

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