Women’s Progress in the UK Workplace

By Shruti Ambavat

The United Nations marked 1975 as the first International Women’s Year and International Women’s Day has been celebrated on the 8th of March every year since then. This year, we take a deep dive into how women in the UK workplaces have progressed and how the legal system has supported that.

Since 1975, the landscape of the UK workplace for women has transformed dramatically. Here’s a glimpse into this remarkable journey from 1971 to the present day:

Increased Participation:

  • Employment Rates: Since 1971, only 53% of women aged 16-64 were employed. This figure has steadily climbed, reaching 67% by 2013. Today, it stands at 78% for women aged 25-54.
  • Full-Time vs. Part-Time: While full-time employment for women grew from 29% in 1985 to 44% in 2017, part-time work remains more prevalent among women than men. This reflects childcare and caring responsibilities and lack of flexible work options. Organisations such as Timely Careers, work towards removing the obstacles, anxiety and challenges that women who want to return to work often face.

Legislative Milestones:

  • Equal Pay Act (1970): This landmark legislation outlawed discrimination based on gender in terms of pay and conditions. Subsequent amendments aimed to address loopholes and strengthen enforcement.
  • Sex Discrimination Act (1975): This act prohibited discrimination based on gender in various aspects of employment, including recruitment, promotion, and training.
  • Maternity Rights: Legislation has evolved progressively, offering paid maternity leave, flexible working options, and protection against redundancy linked to pregnancy or motherhood.

Shifting Roles and Industries:

  • Breaking Glass Ceilings: Women have made significant strides in traditionally male-dominated fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). However, representation at senior levels remains low, with only 9 of FTSE 100 CEOs being women as of August 2023.
  • Entrepreneurship: The number of female-led businesses in the UK has risen significantly, showcasing women’s growing entrepreneurial spirit and ambition. Back in 1984, there were 646,000 self-employed women in the UK. In 2020, that number has more than doubled to 1.6 million. In the same period, the number of self-employed men increased by 47%, from 2.05 million to 3.02 million.

Challenges and Gaps:

  • Gender Pay Gap: While the pay gap has narrowed, it persists. In 2023, women in the UK earn an average of 14.9% less than men per hour.
  • Leadership Representation: Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions across various sectors, including politics and business.
  • Work-Life Balance: Balancing work and personal responsibilities remains a challenge for many women, particularly those with caregiving duties.

A Closer Lens on Women in Northern Ireland:

Women in the workplace in Northern Ireland have made noteworthy progress in recent decades, but there are still challenges to overcome.

Progress made:

  • Increased participation: The number of women in employment in Northern Ireland has risen steadily in recent years, reaching 68% in 2023. This is still lower than the UK average of 72%.
  • More women in senior roles: The proportion of women in senior management positions in Northern Ireland has also increased, from 28% in 2014 to 34% in 2021. Women are, however, still under-represented in leadership roles, and there is a particular lack of women in STEM fields.
  • Legislation: Northern Ireland has several laws in place to protect women from discrimination in the workplace, including the Equality Act (Northern Ireland) 2010.

Challenges remaining:

  • Gender pay gap: Northern Ireland boasts the smallest gender pay gap (only 5% in NI versus 14.9% UK wide).
  • Glass ceiling: Barriers still exist that prevent women from reaching the top of their careers in Northern Ireland and we are so encouraged to have over 180 progressive companies on board with Diversity Mark, working hard to identify and remove barriers to underrepresented genders and minorities. 

Organisations working to support women in the workplace in Northern Ireland:

  • Women in Business: A network that provides support, advice, and training to women in business.
  • The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland: An independent body that works to promote equality and human rights in Northern Ireland.
  • LeanIn: The organisation helps women achieve their ambitions and work goals through training, leadership programmes and peer mentorship.
  • Evolve: The organisation promotes equality, supports female founders, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and leaders from all walks of life to unleash their full potential, achieve success and reach their goals.

Looking ahead:

There is still much work to be done to achieve gender equality in the workplace in Northern Ireland and overall, in the UK. However, the progress that has been made in recent years gives cause for optimism. By continuing to raise awareness of the issues and working together to find solutions, we can create a more equitable workplace for all. Solutions lie in addressing issues such as gender pay gap, adopting inclusive recruitment practices, flexible and part time working for all and employment policies to support women and working families and affordable and accessible quality childcare. Additionally, supporting flexible work arrangements and removing barriers for women in leadership roles can pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable future.

Inspire Inclusion:

We are celebrating International Women’s Day this year with a theme of Inspire Inclusion. The theme emphasises the importance of diversity and empowerment in all aspects of society. It focuses on the role of inclusion in achieving gender equality. One of the key pillars of Inspire Inclusion is the promotion of diversity in leadership and decision-making positions.

We would love to see our signatories sharing their Inspire Inclusion-themed International Women’s Day celebrations.

Do tag us and show off your ‘Mark of Progress’ accreditation on social media.

Resources for data used in the article:

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