Two reports have recently highlighted the on-going focus on the role of women at work and the steps employers should take to ensure that women can play a full role in business.

The BIS/Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on Pregnancy and Maternity-Related Discrimination and Disadvantage and the Women’s Business Council report Maximising women’s contribution to future economic growth – Two years on both make some important observations, and have a number of recommendations for businesses as follows:

Observations from the reports

Record numbers of women are in work and their continued participation in business is key to the current and future success of the economy. Each year, 440,000 working women become pregnant. Equalising women’s productivity and employment to that of men’s levels has the potential for increased GDP of 35% in the UK.

However a number of factors continue to prevent working women from delivering their full contribution:

  • The gender pay gap persists
  • Pregnancy and maternity related discrimination and harassment continues to occur, leading in some cases to dismissal, redundancies and constructive dismissal situations
  • Support during pregnancy is often lacking – particular for more junior or less well paid employees – for example, some employees reported that they had actively been discouraged from attending ante-natal appointments, with others saying that they had been given inappropriate workloads.
  • Communication during maternity leave is inconsistent – many employees would welcome more of it, whilst employers are not always sure how much communication is appropriate, being concerned that too much communication could be seen as putting unnecessary pressure on women to return to work.
  • There is often insufficient support or acceptance of flexible working practices – whilst many employers are able to accommodate flexible working requests on return from maternity leave, many women feel disadvantaged for having made a request, and a number of women still don’t ask for flexible working at all out of fear of the consequences.
  • There is a lack of support for women working into their 50s and 60s, who are often juggling “sandwich” caring responsibilities. As a result they are therefore more likely than men to leave employment early.
  • Cultural norms and stereotypes can present obstacles to female entrepreneurs in setting up and growing their businesses

 Recommendations from the reports

The reports highlight a number of ways in which businesses could address the issues above:

Effective talent management: this is the key to retaining skilled women (and men) in the workforce.

Unconscious bias training: employers should use this more to address the biases of those involved in decision making.

Communication on maternity leave: in addition to contact regarding promotion opportunities or job vacancies, employers should review their communications with employees who are on leave to ensure that employees continue to feel connected to the business.

Flexible working: employers should do more to support culture change by promoting and adopting flexible working to allow all employees to balance their work and out of work responsibilities. Employers should ensure that no employee (male or female) is treated unfavourably for making a request.

Support for older workers: as the working demographic changes, employers need to recognise that older workers also need support both to re-skill where necessary, and  to manage health and other life-changing events.

Make gender equality a company value and have equality targets with consequences: only when targets have real consequences are they likely to be addressed. Targets should form part of senior level performance objectives and appraisals.

Enlist the support of men as agents of change:  the focus should not just be on changing women, but on addressing organisational systems and practices that support the existing status quo. Gender equality requires the support of men at all levels of the workforce, but particularly those in senior roles. Men who work flexibly, who mentor both men and women, and who communicate the value of diversity (for example by avoiding participation in all male panels) can make a significant contribution to culture change.

What are the next steps for employers?

To ensure that your organisation minimises the legal risks highlighted by the reports and to help in building a supportive workplace culture, there are seven key steps that you can take now:

  1. Review your family leave and particularly maternity policies and processes and consider refresher training for line managers who deal with maternity requests. Are they aware of their obligations?
  2. Review your redundancy selection processes and criteria:  how does your organisation ensure that those who are pregnant or are on maternity leave are not disadvantaged in a redundancy situation?
  3. Consider your communications with employees on maternity leave: how do you communicate? And how often? Is it enough?
  4. Review your support for maternity returners: how do you help them to re-integrate into the workplace? What arrangements are in place?
  5. Consider your performance and talent management processes: how do you identify and develop key employees?
  6. Take a look at your flexible working policies and procedures: are they being operated fairly and consistently? Are requests being denied that could in fact be accommodated?
  7. Review your diversity and inclusion statements and policies – are they being implemented in practice?

Whilst many employers will already be implementing a number of the recommendations and next steps outlined above, the reports show that there is still more to be done to harness the economic benefits of encouraging and supporting women to remain at work. By way of reminder, the Government is currently consulting on its proposals for dealing with gender pay gap reporting, and it is clear that women’s participation in the workplace will remain a key issue for some time to come.