Why are women still overlooked and undermined in the workplace?

Even in 2023, women continue to earn less, be less likely to reach leadership positions and are treated differently to men in the workplace. Organisations must do more to dispel stereotypes and support female staff
230307 Iwd Headshots Opt
L-R: Jennie Child, Claire Hutchings, Rebecca Price, Jasmin Thomas and Debbie Tembo

When it comes to delivering more women in the workplace, too many companies tend to focus on diversity rather than inclusion. That is the prevailing view of Raconteur’s all-female panel of business leaders, who agree that it is not enough to simply boost raw recruitment figures; it is important for women to feel seen, supported and equally as encouraged as men.

Jennie Child, the director and founder of Balance, a hiring consultancy firm, says that companies need to exercise greater introspection about their workplace culture and processes. “Companies often start with the ‘what’,” she says. “They say, ‘we’re going to hire lots more women’, but don’t examine the ‘why’. Why are there not more women here in the first place?” 

Job adverts, career awareness and hiring panels

Language, Child notes, is key. “How did they end up with a male-dominated culture? You’ve got to start unpicking it and unpacking it. You can look at a lot of different practical elements,” she adds. “It’s about speaking the right language to attract female candidates, even as early as the job adverts.”

For Jasmin Thomas, the founder and director of Ohana CBD, a skincare company, it is crucial that women are inspired by other women. Where a precedent has already been set for a woman in a senior leadership position or in a particular field that might usually be dominated by men, she says, those stories need to be shared as widely as possible. “You know, no one told me that doing computer science [at school or university] was the key to being a millionaire,” she jokes.

Why are there not more women here in the first place?

Meanwhile, Debbie Tembo, the DE&I partnerships director at Creative Equals, another recruitment consultancy firm, suggests that too many hiring processes lack a diversity of input. Having a single hiring manager sift through applications, conduct interviews and take a decision alone, she argues, can lead to missed questions, as well as a susceptibility to personal biases.

Instead, Tembo says, “it’s worth investing in recruitment panels, because the decision cannot be a unilateral one.” Tembo cedes that it might be harder for smaller organisations who don’t necessarily have the staff numbers to spare, but here she suggests that an “external perspective”, drafted in for the specific purposes of recruitment, could be a worthwhile investment. In order to avoid bias, Tembo says, companies should invest proactively in “bias breaker” measures.

Men must move from allyship to advocacy

According to the panel, even in 2023, there are still cultural double-standards at play that are undermining women at work. Where a man might be described as “dynamic”, notes Rebecca Price, a partner at marketing agency Frank, Bright & Abel, assertive women are often perceived as “aggressive”.

Indeed, perhaps men need to be more introspective on an individual basis. For Thomas, “it’s as if men don’t want to work for women. I see it a lot, especially in the tech world,” she reflects. “[It seems like] an uncomfortable statement [for men to make], that they work for a woman.” 

Child says that men who celebrate themselves for making small gestures towards women need a reality-check. “Allyship is just being a good human,” she explains. Rather than “buzzwords”, Child recommends that men really think about the “systemic barriers and biases” from which they benefit. 

Allyship, Child suggests, needs to transition to something more substantial. “Let’s talk about mentoring, let’s talk about advocacy and sponsorship,” she says.

The business case for diversity within diversity

The panel agrees that diversity is multi-dimensional and that skilled staff can be found from lots of different backgrounds. Accordingly, Claire Hutchings, the founder of the marketing agency Chime, says her organisation is looking at launching apprenticeship programmes rather than focusing solely on the graduate job market. “Whatever you do in your work and your life, it is about making sure you’re lifting other people up around you,” she says.

Hutchings says she is keen to avoid creating a hegemonic organisation, and appreciates the value in different perspectives shaping Chime’s responses to any issues that may arise and evolve. “I’m really conscious that I don’t want to just recruit people that look and sound like me, because that’s not good for [business],” she explains. 

Allyship is just being a good human

While Hutchings admits that it can be tempting to lean on pre-existing networks, she is mindful of the benefits to be gained from fresh insights, especially in response to a situation she herself is unfamiliar with. “Things change really quickly and you have to recruit really quickly,” Hutchings says. “The quickest way to recruit is to go out to your network. And your network might look and sound like you. So you have to be intentional about it and you have to do something different. So that’s our next hire… We have to do something different.”

Still, progress is a slow process. Last month, the proportion of women occupying board roles at the UK’s largest listed companies surpassed 40% for the first time. Yet this figure is still some way short of reflecting the country’s 51% female population. And at leadership positions below the board, just 33.5% of the executive committee or their direct reports are women.

Intersectionality is a salient challenge. Women, and within that, black women, Asian women, working-class women, gay women, trans-women and many others, deserve to be respected and represented at work. “It’s about increasing diversity within the people that have decision-making power,” says Thomas. 

Ultimately, the panel agrees that change is possible, but there is plenty more hard work to be done.