Is gender parity in business a utopian dream?

gender parity in Soviet statusRarely a week goes by when some aspect of gender parity often defined as equality is not in the headlines.

Back in April, just ahead of a Government deadline for firms to report on the gender pay gap within their businesses, the BBC reported that nothing much had changed since the initiative was announced.

Its analysis revealed that fewer than half the UK’s biggest employers had succeeded in narrowing their gender pay gap. In fact, in 45% of firms the discrepancy in pay increased in favour of men and overall in 75% of businesses the gap was in men’s favour.

By July, the focus had shifted to the representation of women on the boards of FTSE100 and FTSE 350 companies. While representation of women on FTSE100 company boards had improved since 2011, from 12.5% to 32% according to the Hampton-Alexander review, many of the leading broadsheets were accusing businesses of adopting what they called a “one and done” policy and that any such “improvements” were a token gesture.

Furthermore, a study by Cranfield University, supported by the FRC (Financial Reporting Council) found women typically hold executive director positions for half as long as men and are more likely to hold an advisory non-executive position than a top managerial role.

When it came to women entrepreneurs and finance there was not a lot about which to be optimistic.

The Independent reported in August that a mere 13% of senior members of UK investment teams are female and only one in five firms was founded by a woman. Indeed, the Government’s Rose Review found that a lack of start-up funding is the number one barrier preventing women from starting a business, with women starting businesses doing so with 53% less capital on average than men.

The Review of Female Entrepreneurship was carried out by Alison Rose, who is currently CEO of commercial and private banking at NatWest and is in line to become the first female boss of a major UK bank if she secures the role of CEO at RBS.

Is there any chance of realising the utopian dream of gender parity in business?

Firstly, the gender parity issue relates mainly to the number of women in senior roles.  Too many of those opining on the issue only compare the pay data for each gender across businesses often claiming that men earn more than women without acknowledging that women are generally fulfilling the lower paid roles. Commentators all too rarely look at pay levels for the two genders doing the same job.

Indeed, there are plenty of men in business who support the ideal that women and men fulfilling identical roles should be paid the same.  In the same vein most men believe that more women are needed in senior roles.

However, the fact is that culture and work demands on those in senior roles remains deeply biased against women in most businesses.

For example, Andrew Hauser, executive director of markets at the Bank of England, said in a recent speech at an event intended to promote careers in forex to women, that a “bro-culture” encouraged financial crime in the foreign exchange markets in recent years.  He described it as a “toxic male environment” arguing that it made terrible business sense to not have more senior women in finance.

But the problem of encouraging more women to seek senior roles in business goes much deeper than that.

In an article in the Guardian on Sunday, Yvonne Roberts unpicked the assumptions that underpin the discipline of Economics, which she argued would remain “a man’s game” while women’s contribution to the economy continued to be undervalued when compared to men’s.

She quotes Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of WBG (Women’s Budget Group), an international independent think-tank that is now part of a global network of feminist economists: “Classical economics is based on the independent man who works full time and is in control,”. As such, calculations of a country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) largely ignores not only women’s direct economic contributions from work and business, but the often-unrecognised social contributions many make that support the smooth running of the economy.

This, the article argues, was recognised by New Zealand’s leader, Jacinda Ardern, whose government in May produced the first ever Wellbeing Budget which allocated millions to child poverty and narrowing the inequality gap.

Clearly utopia will only become a reality if some fundamental and deep-rooted assumptions are changed.

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