International Women’s Day 2015

8 March 2015 marks International Women’s Day, which celebrates women and their achievements around the world by highlighting the work that has taken place to promote women’s equality and human rights. This year, over 200 events are taking place across the UK to mark the event.

Whilst the aim of the celebration is to recognise the positive advancements that have taken place, it also is an opportunity to remember that there are still many areas that require improvement before true equality is achieved. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission estimates it will take 70 years at the current rate of progress to see an equal number of female and male directors of FTSE 100 companies. Further, since the World Economic Forum began compiling statistics on the issue in 2006, the UK has dropped from 9th to 26th in terms of gender equality.

Despite this, many positive developments have occurred in recent years. The gender pay gap is now at its lowest point in history, with more women in work than ever before. According to statistics released by the Office for National Statistics, the gender pay gap has reduced by 0.7 percentage points over the past year to 19.1%, and for those in full-time work the gender pay gap has reduced to almost zero for those under 40.

One of the main reasons behind the gender pay gap is that men tend to work in better paid sectors to women. Steps are being taken to help to redress this in balance and assist women to move away from low-paid, low-skilled work into higher paid, higher skilled work. A £2 million investment is being made by the government principally to fund training for women, including those working part-time and older workers, in a bid to improve their career prospects and earning capability.

Further, recent changes in employment law have sought to redress the stigma associated with employing women who are more likely to have child care responsibilities. This includes the expansion of the right to request flexible working. All employees with 26 weeks’ service, rather than just those employees who qualify as parents or carers, are now able to make a request to change their working patterns. Further, employers will no longer be required to follow the statutory procedure regarding flexible working requests, and must instead consider all requests reasonably.

Additionally, later this year, shared parental leave is to be introduced in a bid to encourage both parents to consider who is to take time off from work when a baby is born. Eligible employees will be entitled share a maximum of 52 weeks’ leave and 39 weeks’ statutory pay upon the birth or adoption of a child, which could result in the mother returning to work, whilst the father takes over the childcare responsibly. Fathers will also be entitled to take unpaid time off work to attend up to two ante-natal appointments

Whilst it remains to the seen how many fathers take up the chance to share child caring responsibilities, this will hopefully help to address any reluctance on the part of employers to employ women of a child bearing age, as lengthy maternity leave periods will no longer be a certainty.

To tackle the cause of discrimination in the workplace, the government proposes to  make free software available to all UK companies from next year, which will enable companies to calculate their gender pay gap easily, and identify issues that may be preventing women from rising up in companies.

With sex discrimination now becoming less of a taboo, seeing more women being prepared to enforce their rights, between January and March 2014 1,222 women took out sex discrimination claims and the maximum compensation for injury to feelings for such a claim currently stands at £30,000.00. It is abundantly clear from this statistic that employer’s should be conscious of sex discrimination risks within the workplace, as the potentially significant awards made following a successful claim can be business critical.

Whilst there is still a long way to go before women truly have equality in the workplace, the recent developments will hopefully result in a leap forward and result in employers recognising that women are a force to be reckoned with and can be invaluable to their business.