International Women’s Day – What progress in employment has been made in recent years?
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International Women’s Day will soon be upon us, this Sunday in fact, but what progress have we seen in recent years for women in employment?

The headline statistics

There has been a lot made about the progress made for women in employment – the UK climbing four rankings between 2012 and 2013 to become the 14th out of 27 developed countries in women’s employment figures. The highest the UK has ranked since 2000. Sounds great doesn’t it?

However, these headline stats hide a few other figures. For example, out of the 27 countries, we rank 25th for the number of women in full time employment. And in fact, women are amongst the most likely to be employed under zero hours contracts.

Women’s employment figures are also just on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) average level – so the fact that we have just reached the average could be seen as slightly disappointing. And being dead centre of all the developed countries in the world is hardly inspiring – but hang on, there’s more.

Looking at the statistics from the government in 2014 though, we can see that there are apparently record breaking numbers of women in work at 67.2% – the highest since records began. And late on last year we also saw the gender pay gap fall to 9.4% compared to 10% a year earlier.

So despite the fact that many women might be working zero hours contracts, it would appear that things are improving… doesn’t it? Well, we all know what Mark Twain thought of statistics… and if you don’t here you are.

Are things really improving?

Recent popular hashtags like #NotJustForBoys may also hint towards the fact that women are still under-represented, or at least don’t feel as accepted, in many areas of the workplace.

Also, news about major retailer ASDA being hit with 1,000 employment tribunal claims from women who feel their pay is not fair seems uncomfortably recent – having only come to light in October last year. And of course there is the (although not UK based) stories of arbitrary gender pay differences in the US film industry that came to light during the Sony pictures hack, and all the fallout since then.

However, statistics from Women On Boards shows that as of October 2014 22.8% of board directorships on FTSE 100 companies are taken up by women. This is certainly progress from the original 12.5% – but hasn’t yet reached their aim of 25%.

So, from these vantage points, it could be suggested that progress isn’t being made.

Beyond pay and representation – women and employment in the UK

Are pay and representation the only areas of gender inequality? Coping with the additional pressures of family life still falls largely to the female of the household, for example.

Members of our team can remember the days when being asked at interview whether they were planning on having a family was perfectly acceptable – but no more. It’s something that can slip out in polite conversation, but can leave employers in really hot water should they decide not to go forward with that candidate.  We guide employers on the right ways to interview, purely because there are so many ways that people can fall foul of equality legislation if they aren’t careful.

Obviously, this helps women to be more fairly represented at the interview phase, and having a family is something that shouldn’t just be placed at the feet of a female candidate anyway. With Paternity leave and Shared Parental leave, family friendly legislation means that employers could be just as likely to feel the pinch with a male employee as a female one should they decide to start a family.

This move towards giving men the opportunity to take more time at this crucial point of their child’s life could be seen to free up women to  spend more time in the workplace. However, this flexibility could be a double edged sword.

As seen with the story about Apple and Facebook offering to freeze their female employees’ eggs, does this flexibility suggest that women are getting a false model of equality? Forcing them to adapt how they live in order to meet the demands of the modern workplace, rather than working around them? It’s certainly something to think about, but at least shows that companies are willing to take steps to help women who want to have a career.

So International Women’s Day would appear to be not just a good time to reflect on the progress that has been made in employing women, and the progress that is still yet to be made. But here’s to another year of increasing female employment and rising wages!

Editors Note: Firms over 250 employees were in fact only asked to provide information on their gender pay gap voluntarily – something which could have impacted upon the government’s reporting. This will now change, under pressure from Lib Dems, to ensure that the law requires these firms to provide this data.

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