Innovating for gender equality will help women and business flourish

Gender equality and gender pay gaps were high on the agenda when I started work in the 1970s. Since then much effort has gone into addressing unequal pay including new laws, court cases, campaigns and codes of practice. Although the gender pay gap has halved, more work is needed to reward women fairly and to ensure that businesses can access talent wherever it lies.

As more women than ever before are working, playing vital roles contributing to businesses all over the country, we need to properly value the work women do as well as providing real opportunities to move up the ladder and stop careers being stifled.  

The Equality and Human Rights Commission works with organisations and individuals across Britain to help everyone fulfil their potential and to support businesses to help grow our economy by being able to draw on the widest possible pool of talent. 

Women’s pay, opportunity and progression at work continues to be held back, including by pregnancy and maternity discrimination. We want to tackle this by giving a voice to women and helping companies follow good practice. Our government funded research project (Pregnancy, maternity and mothers: Research on the experiences of employers and mothers in the 21st Century) is expected to show the scale of discrimination, and we plan to issue new guidance, with practical help and advice, for successfully managing maternity and pregnancy.

We know that inequality is acting as a huge dead weight on the economy as well as holding back fairness. The Equality and Human Rights Commission and the government can play a part in creating opportunities and dismantling barriers but we think the private sector has a pivotal role in helping to unlock people’s potential. 

The latest competition in the UK Futures Programme, run by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), has been set up to support businesses (including SMEs) that want to explore and address women’s disadvantages in work.

Small and medium-sized enterprises account for 60 per cent of employment in the private sector. The Equality and Human Rights Commission understands the challenges facing small businesses and has learnt a lot about how we can better support employers in avoiding costly legal issues. Our constructive approach to helping businesses and working with government in recent years has been widely recognised by ministers and our “proportionate, balanced and pragmatic approach” was noted in the positive feedback in a report this year from the Cabinet Office’s Better Regulation Delivery Office.

We are pleased that the competition provides an opportunity to take a completely fresh look at job design and the way work is organised to promote fairness and equality of opportunity as well as improving the bottom line.

Addressing these problems might sound difficult but employers who have found the time to talk to their teams about what would improve work, what is needed to enhance performance and how to remove the obstacles to progress, have discovered some easy wins.

Harnessing staff ideas can mean challenging some long standing workplace traditions. For example, one idea that worked well for a social care company was to allow staff to work out between themselves how to cover shifts using a secure Facebook page. Staff were happier and costs were cut. 

Evidence shows that helping women flourish in work will help address the gender pay gap, as well as building business and strengthening our economy. There are many business benefits of understanding staff better, listening to their ideas and acting upon them. These include:

  • Decreased staff turnover
  • More engaged and productive staff
  • Greater clarity about your pay bill and how you are using it
  • Being in a better position to win public sector contracts  
There isn’t a false choice between promoting equal opportunities and economic competitiveness – the two can go hand in hand.

Kate Bennett was appointed as the national director for Wales for the new Equality and Human Rights Commission in September 2007. Bennett had previously been the Director of the Equal Opportunities Commission in Wales, a post she had held since 1999.

Throughout her career Bennett has been actively involved in equalities work. Prior to the EOC, she was a full-time trade union official, community campaign worker and a research journalist. 

She believes collaboration, partnership working and harnessing everybody’s skills and ideas will be the key to achieving change in society.

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