Have Women Finally Smashed The Glass Ceiling?

Glass slipper

This June marks the 100th anniversary of the day when suffragette Emily Davidson threw herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Her actions that day brought the issue of women’s rights and their place society into the political forefront. But 85 years since women won the right to vote and 30 years since the Equal Pay Act outlawed workplace discrimination, how far have we really come?

The pay gap in the UK

While we may expect women to earn a lower average wage than men later on in their career, the Higher Education Career Service’s Unit has released some new statistics which made for uncomfortable reading. It seems well-educated female graduates fresh out of university are still earning thousands of pounds less than their male equivalents. This is despite the fact that throughout school and university, women routinely outperform men.

It doesn’t get much better over time: a woman can earn up to £423,000 less than a man in her career. And the recession is making things worse as women are forced out of public sector jobs into the private sector where the pay gap is even more pronounced.

Where are all the women in executive roles?

As MP Jo Swinson points out, the evidence shows that companies with a mix of genders on their boards do better than male-only boards. So why are there so few women at the top?

Lord Davies recommended that women make up 25% of FTSE 100 top executive roles by 2015, but advocates letting firms voluntarily appoint women rather than imposing quotas. More women have taken top positions since his report, but your average CEO is still most likely to be a greying, 53-year-old man according to the Robert Half CEO tracker. There are now only three female chief executives on the FTSE 100 index.

Flexibility at work

If we want more women in senior management positions, businesses have to adapt to allow both women and men to fit their family life around work. Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer disappointed many by making a very public statement that she didn’t think people could be productive when they work from home, but thankfully more employers are becoming increasingly flexible according to research from BT.

Top roles are demanding, but there has to be support in place throughout a woman’s career so they don’t have to simply drop out when they start a family and have to crawl their way back when they return to work. Allowing mums and dads to work from home or come in at different times could make all the difference.

Sexual harassment

It seems hard to believe, but many women are still the victim or regular sexual harassment while at work. The Equality and Human Rights Commission says than over half of women in the workplace have complained of sexual harassment in some form.

Whether it’s a male colleague touching a woman inappropriately or rude remarks which women are supposed to laugh off, these all make it difficult for women to do their jobs and creates a hostile working environment which puts them off.

Workplace culture

Discrimination isn’t always outright — a boys club still exists in many offices which women are not invited to. Whether it’s late dinners, golf games at the weekend or a certain way of communicating that suits men more, it’s hurting women’s chances of getting promoted. David Cameron’s seemingly innocuous ‘calm down, dear’ jibe to a female MP in the House of Commons (which got a laugh from his male colleagues) is a case in point.

And while many women opt out of the career ladder by choice, others never make it to the top because of a conscious or even unconscious bias on the part of senior male executives who subconsciously promote people who resemble them.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is one of the few examples of a senior women in a tech company. She’s been outspoken about the fact that she regularly clocks off at 5pm to have dinner with her kids but works later on from home and doesn’t worry about what the rest of the office might think. She also admits to crying at work – even in meetings with her boss Mark Zuckerberg – and encourages all women to cry if they feel like it. It’s only until more high profile women speak out and make their mark on the culture at the top that it will be more welcoming to women.

Your legal rights

The Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination act are there to protect women. If you think you’re being unfairly treated or discriminated against don’t just chalk it up to your imagination and sweep it under the carpet. And if you think it’s affecting your wages, speak to a solicitor who can tell you if you’ve got a case to make an equal pay claim.

Have you encountered discrimination at work? Have things gotten any better?

Janet Reader is a freelance writer on a number of topics…

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