IWD 2021: The broken rung

Despite the increased prevalence of women in the workplace, obstacles ranging from the ‘motherhood penalty’ to sexual harassment are a stubborn reality for women, writes Grace McLoughlin.
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By Grace McLoughlin

Grace McLoughlin is Content Manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion

08 Mar 2021

At a time when female world leaders are receiving widespread acclaim for their successful handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, and women in leadership functions become more commonplace than ever before, it’s also statistically likely that as a woman you will have encountered various barriers in the workplace.

These hurdles range from the ‘motherhood penalty’ and the ‘broken rung’ to sexual harassment and the menopause.

To get some insight into why these obstacles remain in place today, we must recognise that many traditional workplace structures and cultures evolved during a time when women were largely absent from the workforce or were rarely the main breadwinners.

These structures and cultures have ossified over the years, and so, even today, with women in the workplace in far greater numbers, we continue to experience similar challenges to those our female forebearers had in the 60s and 70s.

Given the widespread upheaval to working practices that we’re all experiencing as a result of the pandemic, there is no better time to examine the areas where change is needed in the workplace, to ensure that true gender equality becomes a reality. 

“Different from the 'glass ceiling' which refers to barriers to women reaching the top of their field, the 'broken rung' is a phenomenon where women are disproportionately stuck below management grade”

For this very reason, on 30 March, expert speakers from the public and private sectors, together with Irish EPP Group deputy Frances Fitzgerald, will be examining these issues and discussing solutions at a Dods Diversity & Inclusion conference entitled, ‘Supporting Women at Work’.

The conference will cover a range of issues and challenges facing women in the workplace and will provide employers, managers and HR professionals with expert guidance on tackling these barriers to women’s progress at all stages of their lives and careers.

So what are the main hurdles for women in the workplace? In answering this question, the first thing to acknowledge is that, while traditional structures or ideas about working life can be the initial cause for these obstacles, social norms, stereotypes or bias often reinforce their potency.

Let’s take the ‘broken rung’, sometimes referred to as the ‘sticky floor’. Different from the ‘glass ceiling’, which refers to barriers to women reaching the top of their field, the ‘broken rung’ is a phenomenon where women are disproportionately stuck below management grade.

Research by McKinsey and LeanIn.org in the US found that missing the first step up from an entry-level position to a managerial one sets women back for the rest of their careers.

Although this is a US-based study, like the glass ceiling, the pattern is replicated across the world. In the UK, for example, men are 40 percent more likely to be promoted into management positions than women.

This is not for lack of qualification; women outperform men in education and enter the labour market with higher qualifications. Rather, it has been suggested that women are held to a higher standard, promoted on the basis of performance, while men are promoted more on potential.

Several years later, the ‘motherhood penalty’ tends to rear its head.

Research by the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that it is following the birth of a woman’s first child that the gender pay gap truly becomes problematic, rising steadily over time from approximately seven percent at the time of birth to almost 35 percent twenty years later.

UK Government research citing the report finds that part-time work accounts for part of this disparity, but “a substantial amount remains unexplained” - suggesting that bias plays a significant role. Bias also materialises in more subtle ways regarding other issues, such as the menopause.

“It is following the birth of a woman’s first child that the gender pay gap truly becomes problematic, rising steadily over time from approximately seven percent at the time of birth to almost 35 percent twenty years later” 

In the UK, women of menopausal age are the fastest-growing workplace demographic. The average age to experience the menopause is 51 - a time of life when men and women are often gearing up for senior positions and with well over a decade of their working lives remaining before retirement.

The menopause itself is widely regarded as a taboo topic, and often even a source of shame. Moreover, 59 percent of working women who experience menopausal symptoms say it has a negative impact on them at work.

However, small actions by managers and employers - often beginning with an open conversation - can make a huge difference to female employees’ experience, both of work and of the menopause.

The benefits to employers are also clear, enabling them to retain valuable members of their workforce and expertise and avoid the cost of recruitment and absence.

In order to fully tackle the taboos affecting women’s experience at work, it would be remiss to overlook the issues of domestic abuse and sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is often a culture-change issue, requiring commitment from senior leaders and a zero-tolerance policy. Domestic abuse is more subtle, especially given that it can initially appear to be a topic with little relation to working life at all.

The statistics paint a different picture, however; even before lockdown, statistics showed that domestic abuse cost the UK economy £1.9bn annually in lost productivity, time off, lost wages and sick pay.

Furthermore, in an office culture, 75 percent of victims are targeted at work with unwanted calls and emails.

The occasion of International Women’s Day lends itself well to the conversation around how we can support women more in the workplace. Considering that we spend around a third of our lives at work, women should be entitled to enjoy the same working conditions and pay as our male counterparts.

The upcoming Dods Diversity & Inclusion ‘Supporting Women at Work’ online conference aims to give a much-needed platform to these pressing issues.

Find out more about the day-long online event here: www.dodsdiversity.com/upcoming-events/ view,supporting-women-at-work_246.htm 

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