Women, family and the economy: the gender equality revolution

READ the first annual Brasenose College Equality Lecture, delivered 13th November 2019

Women have always worked. But we forget - or do not realise - the scale of change over past 50 years.

The gender equality revolution has not yet delivered what it promised - women, families and the economy are being shortchanged, and that will continue unless and until we are brave enough to ask some pretty searching questions about work and how it is organised; and act on the answers. And until we accept that the gender equality revolution is about equality for men, too, at home and at work.

I shall first look back 50 years, to remind us of what the world of work was like for women then, and consider the reasons for the huge increase in women’s participation in the workforce.

The evidence is that gender diversity at work is hugely important for the economy but that, despite this, progress for women is very slow.

I shall also consider the impact of flexible working, which was originally envisaged as ushering in an age of increased leisure for all of us, but which rather has contributed to holding back equality for women and men.

And I shall conclude with evidence that fathers are beginning to make the same career compromises as mothers - and that there is hope that a generation which desires equality at home will demand equality at work and help to deliver the fundamental changes in how work is designed and organised which are necessary to complete the gender equality revolution

I shall talk about men and women, mothers and fathers, in general. The particular inequalities experienced by women of colour, lesbian and trans women, and by lone mothers, are beyond the scope of today’s lecture.

I shall start with one particular woman. Janet Gaymer became the first woman senior partner of a Top 20 law firm in 2001. But in 1969, recently graduated from St Hilda’s, she was rejected by a firm, still a top firm in the City today but whose blushes she spares by not naming them - “We are prejudiced against female articled clerks, due to some unfortunate experiences in the past”. Six years before the Sex Discrimination Act outlawed such practice - if not attitudes - as she says, you just shrugged and applied somewhere else.

It was a very different world. Men worked. Nine out ten of men were economically active in the early '70s. Women worked too, but only around half of them, making up around 30% of the workforce. The influence of the “marriage bar” lingered on, which in the '50s and '60s had required married women to give up work in many jobs - the civil service, the post office, the BBC, for example. For those who did work, the expectation was that wages were pin money. Till the late '70s, working women were routinely refused mortgages in their own right, or were granted them only if they could secure the signature of a male guarantor. A married woman's income still had to be declared on her husband's tax return in the 1980s - so he knew how much she earned. And until 1990 married women were routinely taxed under their husband's tax code.

Today, fewer men work, around 80%, and more women, around 70%: the smallest gap since records began in 1971.

The past almost fifty years fall rather neatly into two periods. The '70s and '80s were a period of rapid change, when most of the increase in women’s employment rates took place. Since the mid '90s, society has had to make sense of a new normal in which men and women are increasingly equal in terms of their presence in the workforce but far from equal in how they are treated and as a result in how they are able to contribute.

Half a century ago, the UK economy began to change radically. Opportunities in employment and education opened up for women. Equalities legislation in the '70s made it easier for them to remain in or return to work after having children. Meanwhile, traditional male jobs—manufacturing, construction —declined from 40 percent to 15 percent of the economy today. The growth was in the service sector—jobs seen as appropriate to women--increased from around half to more than 80 percent of today’s economy.

Related changes in male earnings drove women in lower income families into work. Through the '70s and '80s the earnings of the lowest paid men declined sharply in real terms, from 70% to just over half of median earnings, so it is not surprising that the biggest change in female workforce participation occurred among their wives.

The other group of women whose participation leapt up was the highest earners. Over that same period, the percentage of managers and administrators who were women doubled, for example. A reflection first of the rising levels of educational qualifications and then the greater continuing of employment made possible by new equality laws.

In the early '60s, fewer than one quarter of people in higher education were women, by the early '70s it was one third, and by the mid '90s almost half. That led to big changes in the professions - for example, new entrants to the law jumped from less than a fifth to around half, and to accountancy from 3% to around half.

And then working mothers returned to work after maternity, and they returned to work between births and sooner than they might previously have done. The economic participation rate for women with no children didn’t change particularly, while that of mothers jumped from 47% to 59% - and that’s a trend which continues to this day: in 2019 71% of women with no children are in work, 75% of mothers with dependent children. In this respect, mothers are becoming more like fathers, with both more likely to be in work than someone without dependent children.

Three legal landmarks made this continuing employment possible.

Pay first. Before 1970, it was common practice in the private sector and some parts of the public sector for there to be separate, and lower, women's rates of pay. For example the Ford Motor Company had four grades for production workers: male - skilled, male - semi-skilled, male - unskilled and female.

Equal Pay Act 1970 - fully enacted in 1975, to give employers time to adjust - required equal pay for men and women working for the same or an associated employer in the same or equivalent work - and then from 1984, doing work of equal value, to enable claims where there is no direct male comparator. This continues to be a critical test point, for example, in a case settled this year by Glasgow City Council some traditionally female-dominated roles such as catering or home care had been paid for years at up to £3 an hour less than male-dominated jobs such as bin lorry workers or gardeners. Or right now, Samira Ahmed’s case against the BBC.

Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in employment, training or education, and also on basis of marital status. It also introduced the concept of indirect sex discrimination - that’s where an employer sets a requirement or condition which is on the face of it fair, because it applies to everyone, but which one sex or the other will be less likely to be able to comply with. Because women were then and are still more likely to be the primary carer in a family this has played a key role as women started to ask for reduced hours and flexible working. For example, a requirement that everyone start work at 9am, may indirectly discriminate against a mother who can’t get there till 9.15 because of school drop off.

And finally, the UK introduced its first maternity leave legislation through the Employment Protection Act 1975 - although, to begin with only about half of working women were eligible for it because of long qualifying periods of employment. But it did make illegal for the first time to sack a woman because she was pregnant.

So by the mid '80s the working mother has become a thing. The Working Mothers Association had support groups across the UK. Employers were actively wooing working mothers - BHS, Boots, Midland Bank, Asda were all making the running in the '80s and '90s - offering part time roles and childcare support.

I’ll take us swiftly up to date from there. Women - especially mothers - continued to enter and remain in the workforce, although the pace of increase slowed. Further legislative changes have provided longer maternity leave and pay as a day one right, introduced the Right to Request (not to have) Flexible Working - and most recently, Shared Parental Leave, which aims to enable greater involvement of the father in family life.

As mothers entered the workforce in greater numbers, genuine questions were raised about what was best for children. This tension continues to play within government today, with debates about the purpose of childcare and of parental leave - is it for the good of the child, or the good of the economy by enabling female work?

In fact, there is now plenty of evidence of positive outcomes for the children of working mothers and for those of active fathers.

Harvard Business School has shown that adult children of working mothers are just as happy as those of mothers who stayed at home. Their daughters are more likely to work themselves. Sons do more childcare, and have significantly more egalitarian gender attitudes.

So here we are today, with pretty much half the workforce female - pretty much equality in terms of economic participation.

More women in the workforce has had a positive effect for the economy. Employers want and need women, who out perform their male peers at school and outnumber and outperform them at university. Organisations that retain women, spend less on recruiting and training new workers - that’s been the basic business case for decades. Plus, the evidence is overwhelming that gender diversity - that is, having a mix of men and women within an organisation - results in better performance and increased profitability. And gender diversity on executive leadership teams, specifically, not just the non-execs on the board, is consistently positively correlated with higher profitability. The international consulting firm McKinsey demonstrates this year on year: companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 21% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

And yet - women continue to be underrepresented at every level. This is what the Gender Pay Gap reporting, introduced in the UK two years ago, illustrates so starkly. Put simply, the Gender Pay Gap is the average difference between hourly wages for men and women. Some argue that the gap is simply the result of the choices which women make. Over half of American men believe it is invented. It is not. It is the result of labour market segregation - what are seen as men’s jobs are paid more; of unequal care responsibilities; of more men in more senior roles - and a percentage which researchers cannot assign to anything other than discrimination.

The pay gap among all employees (full and part-time) is 17.3% - better than it was 20 years ago, when it stood at 26.9%, but it’s slow moving. In a nice coincidence, tomorrow is Equal Pay Day in the UK, the day on which women effectively stop earning for the rest of the year relative to men.

Every organisation which employs 250 or more people has to file its gender pay statistics; and almost every one reports the same picture. The further down the organisation you go, the more women you find. The further up, the more men. The Chartered Management Institute calculates that to have a 50/50 gender balance in management jobs by 2024, the UK needs to create an extra 1.5m women managers.

The annual Female FTSE, produced by Cranfield University, also demonstrates the lack of women’s progress up the ranks. There are more women on company boards than ever before, but they still only make up a third of FTSE 100 directors and the percentage of female executive directors in the FTSE 100 sits at just 11%. Better than it was when the Index started in 2000 - when it was 6% of all directors, and only 2% of executive directors. Progress cannot be described as fast.

Given the strong evidence in favour of gender diversity, what is holding back greater workplace equality?

Culturally, we are still deeply influenced by the antique roles of breadwinner and nurturer. It’s perhaps not surprising, given how relatively recent and how major are the changes in who works and when There is a perverse form of equality being reported by some fathers who find that taking - or merely asking about - shared parental leave results in disapproval and active detriment. Harriet Harman has written about asking teenage girls and boys about the impact of a baby on their working lives. The girls expect the impact to be equal for them and the baby’s father; boys expect bigger impact on the mother and, Harman says, they are “perplexed by the idea that progress in their own work will need to be balanced against the needs of their child.”

Society shapes options and makes demands as though there is a full time female carer at home. It starts with pregnancy. Despite the law, discrimination is rife. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission found that 77% of mothers surveyed had had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave or on their return to work. The research suggested that redundancy among mothers at some point during pregnancy, maternity leave or on return to work is considerably higher than the redundancy rate among female employees as a whole. And overall, 11% of mothers said they had felt forced to leave their job.

Then there is maternity leave and pay - a woman has 52 weeks leave, 39 paid; a man has two. Not much equality there. Maternity pay is about half the national minimum wage, at £148 per week. Just at a time when family costs are going up, new parents have to make decisions which are shaped in most cases by the mother’s much reduced income. So - even though Shared Parental Leave has the aim of enabling parents to share the mother’s 52 weeks, because it too is paid at £148 per week, it makes sense for the mother to take the majority of the leave.

And childcare. The net cost for a couple family on an average wage in the UK is 33% of their income - the most expensive in Europe, costing the average family much the same as their mortgage. When the man earns more, it seems to make sense for the mother to reduce her hours to reduce the need for paid childcare. And - those atavistic feelings about who works and who cares - most couples talk about childcare costs as being set specifically against the mother’s earnings, rather than as a shared cost. But the lack of quality part time jobs results in a real long term loss to the mother, to the family and to the economy. Around 20% of jobs paying £20k or less a year are advertised as flexible, and availability drops sharply as salaries rise. It’s hardly surprising that women who do not want to, or cannot afford to, work full time find themselves with little choice other than to take a step down - almost half of mothers on low or middle incomes, and 42% of those with degrees, take a lower skilled part-time job on return to work. The demand for good quality work was underlined this year when the insurance giant Zurich introduced wording on all job ads, indicating that every role can be worked full time, part time or as a jobshare. Overall applications from women went up by 25% in the first three months; and from senior women by 45%.

The final barrier for the working mother (and indeed for the father who wants to play an equal role in childcare) is that services, the GP, the nursery, the school - call her first by default when a parent is needed. Research with parents further confirms that it is easier - that is, more acceptable - for the mother to respond and take time out of work than it is for the father, regardless of seniority.

When we turn to the workplace, we find the structural barriers. Work is based still on the notion of the Ideal Worker - full time, with a full time homemaker to support him. Career progress is designed around this Ideal Man. For example, in the professions, the path to partner, requiring full-time full-on commitment, coincides with childbearing and childrearing years. Professional progress in academia is helped by participation in international conferences, not so easy if you have primary childcare responsibility. And, even in always-on 24/7 organisations, work is still built on a rigid Monday to Friday 9-5 model, which causes particular problems for anyone with care responsibilities.

The response by employers was and on the whole continues to be, to try to fix the women. Provide childcare, provide flexible working, coaching, training and the ambitious woman can model herself on the successful man, and pass as an Ideal Worker. This approach reached its apogee in 2013 with the publication of Lean In, by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. She promotes what women can do to help themselves, to make what she describes as the small changes in life that can effect change on a more universal scale. Learning to 'lean in' is about “tackling the anxieties and preconceptions that stop women reaching the top”.

Many employers have deployed flexible working as the key ‘fixing solution’, to attract, retain and progress women.

Flexible working is commonly defined as a type of working arrangement which gives a degree of flexibility on how long, where, when and at what times employees work. Most definitions miss out the crucial element - how much work is to be done. For many, it translates into flexibility about where and when to manage too much work.

But when people first began thinking about flexible working, in the early '70s, there were two linked ideas. That flexibility could help people (primarily mothers of young children) into employment; and it could help workers achieve a better quality of life through improved work life balance. The dream was to enable a new balance within couple households where fathers might increasingly share childcare responsibilities; and to replace traditional working patterns with more flexible alternatives.

One of the first studies I commissioned - Quality of Life in the City, in 2001 - identified the most significant barrier to change as culture. Desire for personal and professional balance was often interpreted as lack of career commitment. Outdated management techniques held back change. Since then, there has been an explosion of flexible working in banking, finance, professional services, the civil service. One of the leading exponents is Lloyds Banking Group, where flexible working is available to everyone, and every vacancy is reviewed for its potential to be worked flexibly. But even two decades on, those sectors struggle to progress women in their careers and into leadership. And in the UK workforce generally, although every employee has had the right to ask to work flexibly since 2014, and parents since 2003, the actual incidence of flexible working seems to have been broadly flat, or increasing very slowly, over the past 10 to 15 years. It seems likely that many employees make use of informal arrangements to work flexibly, either alongside or instead of more formal arrangements. This below the radar approach is particularly used by men. Flexible working today is very unevenly distributed across the economy – more common in the public sector than in the private, and in large employers than in small; less common if you are a manager, and less common if you are a man.

For part-time work specifically - the number of part-time workers has remained steady since the late '90s at around one quarter of the workforce, although over that period there has been a gradual reduction in the percentage who are women - now nearly one quarter of part-time workers are men, although there is some evidence that men working part time and on low wages would prefer to be in better-earning full time work.

And generally, flexible working is perceived as female. An analysis of the Growing Up in Scotland families dataset shows that low-paid mothers and fathers are equally likely to have access to forms of flexible working, but that mothers are more likely to use them. Focus groups revealed that fathers were reluctant to ask, though some wished that they could do so.

So here we are. Mothers and fathers with dependent children are more likely to be in work than non-parents. In over 70% of couple families, both parents work. These dual earner households are contending with work which is structured on the assumption that there is somebody at home taking care of all family issues. The result of this mismatch is that while parents may be bringing home the money which the family needs, for many this is at the cost of time - it’s a trade off between the two currencies which are needed for families to flourish. And it’s the women who bear the brunt, spending around twice as much time as men each day on housework and childcare.

The Modern Families Index is produced by the charity I led until last year. It is an annual survey of 2,750 working parents with dependent children living at home with them. It presents a consistent picture of the negative impacts of work on family life. When asked about the balance between money and time, in 2019 only a quarter of parents surveyed think they have enough money and enough time. For everyone else, the fit is not right.

Almost 1/3 say they have neither - these parents are being run ragged by work which doesn’t pay enough and also doesn’t allow enough time for family life. These are low paid workers, quite likely holding down more than one job or doing extra shifts, aiming just to make ends meet.

Another 1/3 don’t have the income their family needs, although they do have time - we are likely there seeing people working fewer hours than they would like, or at a skills and pay level below what they could command, traded off for time.

And then almost 1:10 parents say they have the money their family needs, but this comes at the cost of time. These are likely to be senior people in demanding roles.

Parents say that work overspill leads to unhealthy eating, less reading and homework with children, more arguments with their children and their partner.

Overall, the Index tells us that 29% of parents say that their wellbeing is poor often or all the time. And they blame work stress, work overspill.

Over half a million people suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17 - that added up to 12.5 million lost working days. A report this year claimed working mothers experience 40% more stress than others at work. Stress leads to lost output for employers and the self-employed of around £40bn per year, and lost tax/national insurance revenue to the public purse of up to £14bn. It’s a huge price we pay, and the biggest single cause of workplace stress – in almost half of cases – is workload.

Going back to the Modern Families Index, this is where another of the limitations of flexible working becomes evident. More than a third of parents who do work flexibly say that still their worklife balance does not work for them or their family. In the face of work overload - flexible working may in fact make things worse, because of the mismatch between the individual’s expectation about what flexibility should deliver in terms of quality of life, and the reality.

And, as I have argued, all the flexible working in the world does not seem to compensate for structural, cultural and societal inequalities. Women enter the workforce with better educational qualifications than men, but within a few years are earning less, are less likely to be promoted, and more likely to downshift in their career or step away completely. It is estimated that bridging this gender gap in work could add £150 billion to the UK economy by 2025.

Organisations have spent the past twenty year trying to fix the women - in which women have colluded. Faced by workplaces which are designed for a full time ideal male worker, we have tried to Lean In, we have taken on the brunt of caring, tried to be superwoman.

If we can’t fix the women, it has to be time to fix work itself.

Some people are responding to the human impossibility of meeting 24/7 service demands via the same pair of hands or the same brain, by rethinking the structure of their organisations and how work can be delivered. The four day week currently gets much attention, and works well in some settings - Pursuit Marketing is a small business in Glasgow where productivity gains have settled down around 30% over the past two years; Microsoft Japan reported 40% productivity gains from an experimental three day weekend trialled this August. But it’s not the solution for all - although the quality of care increased measurably in care homes in Gothenburg across a two year pilot, the local authority could not sustain the cost of the additional workers required; and this year the Wellcome Trust pulled back from rolling out a four day week at the same pay, unable to make the model work across all roles in the organisation.

It’s going to take real courage and new thinking to tackle the ‘how much’ part of the equation, which is where the solution lies. The problem is that the productivity evidence is likely to suffer just as diversity evidence does. Leaders get it, intellectually, but it is easier - especially in the face of day to day operational pressures and costs - to keep on doing what we have always done.

So I believe that the change will come from men - many of them the sons of that '70s and '80s generation of working mothers, those men who have significantly more egalitarian gender attitudes - men seeking greater equality at home, and thus changing their behaviour and expectations at work.

Employee surveys have for some years picked up male resentment about family friendly or flexible working policies being just for women. I often think about the words of a father who felt constrained in his choices - “I resent being relegated to the status of breadwinner”. Fathers surveyed in the Modern Families Index express their wish to play a more active role at home and their frustration that work is not flexible enough. A minority have begun taking action, reducing their working hours or moving to a new employer to find a better balance between work and home.

It is evident that - when men feel safe to become active fathers and, crucially, when they feel they can afford to so, they embrace the opportunity. UK-wide, the take-up of Shared Parental Leave hovers at truly dismal 2%. But in many big firms, take up is high, where it is well communicated and paid at wage replacement levels. Aviva is getting a lot of publicity for their provision of 26 weeks leave at full pay to new mothers and to new fathers. The average length of time taken by new fathers has jumped from ten days a year to 146. They were first out of the blocks, but they are far from alone.

And although progress in formal policy and practice is primarily found in the corporate sector, there is a real grassroots change evident - websites like and show a new generation of fathers is talking and taking action to create the kind of family and work equality they and their partners aspire to.

Change is organic, responsive and sometimes we don’t really see it happening till it has happened. Women at work have consistently asked for and fought for equality. From the women sewing machinists at Ford Dagenham striking for equal pay in 1968 to Janet Gaymer persisting and leading change for professional women, to Harriet Harman fighting for new equalities laws under New Labour, and indeed to Sheryl Sandberg, leaning in.

Change is needed now in how women and men think about themselves and their domestic roles. Change is needed at work - we all have to think differently about the ideal worker, and about how career progression fits alongside family life. And change is needed politically, to invest in childcare and leave for mothers and fathers as an essential part of the economic infrastructure of the UK.

Women have done their bit. Our sons want to be active fathers. But unless they translate that into workplace action in the way that we did - being willing to be the ones marked out as different, being the role models, making a nuisance of themselves - the gender equality revolution is likely to get stuck and to continue to disappoint us all.

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