Women in the workplace: what’s holding back progress in 2023?

Persistent issues, from the gender pay gap to the ‘motherhood penalty’ and a continuing lack of female representation in senior leadership, mean there’s still plenty of room for improvement

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the Ford sewing machinists’ strike of 1968, which became a milestone for women in the workplace in the UK. The women’s decision to walk out over being paid less than men for the same job led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

The strike also paved the way for discussions about equality in the workplace. For example, we’re now used to thinking in terms of ‘gender gaps’, the gender pay gap being the most familiar of these metrics. It’s a way of visualising this issue inspired by the women of Dagenham.

But the gender pay gap doesn’t tell the whole story. Other ‘gaps’ affecting women include overall workplace participation, progression and C-suite representation. Nor does the gap model necessarily reflect the complexity of issues that women face at work, from attitudes to the menopause and periods, to debates around parental leave, caring responsibilities and hybrid work.

So, what’s the true state of play for working women in 2023? And what’s the best way to think about our collective progress towards equality? A gap undoubtedly remains here, with men’s participation in the workforce consistently above women’s over the past 50 years.

It’s worth noting that the global average rate for women’s employment is around 47%, according to the International Labour Organization, with the US achieving 57%. This puts the UK significantly ahead – as is also the case across several other gender gaps.

Looking beyond these familiar gaps, one particular challenge women still face in 2023 is in securing good career progression. Caring responsibilities, motherhood and the risk of encountering sexist discrimination or harassment in the workplace compound this issue, making it far harder for women to climb the corporate ladder. It’s a problem which becomes all too clear when comparing the proportion of women at each career stage.

As the chart below shows, progress towards equality is not always linear. While some mid-career women are indeed moving up into the C-suite, there seems to be a barrier to progression for early-career women looking to move into middle management.

Much of the lack of progress for early-to-mid-career women can be attributed to the influence of the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’. According to research by Henley Business School, as much as 80% of the gender pay gap stems from the time some women choose to stop work to have children.

Add to this the fact that the UK’s childcare costs currently average £14,000 per year, making it the second most expensive country in the world for childcare, and the fact that women generally bear the brunt of caring responsibilities, and it’s clear why, by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old, her hourly pay rate is on average 33% behind a man’s, according to Baker McKenzie.

So, what solutions are out there? And where are things heading?

To begin with, monitoring and disclosing progress on gender equality is becoming far more widespread, thanks in part to legislative efforts – the UK introduced mandatory gender pay gap reporting in 2017 – and thanks to businesses making voluntary efforts in this regard. After all, without meaningful data on gender equality, it is difficult to assess progress.

Demographic tailwinds and changing attitudes are also helping to move things in the right direction. For instance, research by the Oliver Wyman Forum has found that gen Z women are generally more vocal about demanding change and are quicker to leave an unsatisfactory job than both their male counterparts and previous generations. According to a report from ManpowerGroup, 56% of gen Z-ers say they would not accept a job where the organisation lacks a diverse leadership team. That’s bound to pile the pressure on to employers to improve.

And that’s not the only reason for optimism. Changes to workplace policies and legislation are also increasingly contributing to the cause of equality.

Data from StandOut CV shows an increase in generous parental leave policies. Workplace parental leave policies, for both men and women, are thought to be significant in combating the ‘motherhood penalty’. Even where women choose not to have children, these and other workplace policies all help to set a tone. It’s an intangible cultural factor, but it’s something businesses would be wise to keep in mind if they intend to take gender equality seriously.

Tickets for the inaugural Women in Work Summit, taking place virtually and in person on 26 September at Kings Place London, are now available at www.wiwsummit.com.

Focusing on advancing women in work at all stages of life – from menstruation to menopause – business leaders, policymakers and practitioners will discuss how to make a business case for gender progress in the workplace and implement policies that benefit all genders.