It is more than 50 years since the UK government introduced the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Yet more than five decades later, women are still facing a battle for equality in the workplace. Men’s participation in the workforce has been consistently above women’s over the past 50 years, while the gender pay gap still persists and women are far less likely to progress to the most senior management levels.
Laura Biggs, CEO at Intuitive Events, wants to see change. And key to that, she believes, is getting both women and men to speak openly and honestly about issues including fertility, parenting and menopause that impact women and, by extension, their work.
To do that, she is running the first Women in Work Summit, which will be held at King’s Place in London on 26 September. At the event, speakers including Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon, WPP CEO Mark Read and John Lewis Partnership chair Sharon White will discuss topics from how to find female role models to embedding an equitable culture and how the C-suite should hold itself to account.
Here, we speak with Biggs about equality for women in the workplace and why an event is needed.
Why is a Women In Work Summit necessary?
I run a fertility show, so I was hearing lots around the topic of women in the workplace and how to have conversations about it. I also run the campaign group ‘Menopause Mandate’. Then I went to a brilliant event about the wellbeing of women from menstruation to menopause. This event was coming at the topic very much from a health point of view, but it also has such an impact in the business world, yet it’s not spoken about. We hear a lot about women in business or women in leadership, but not the impact that being a woman – with our different life stages - has in the workplace.
The reality is, most women are biologically different. Many of us have periods, some will become mothers, will go through the menopause. And some are really struggling and we’re just not talking about it.
The launch of the BSI’s menstruation and menopause policy earlier this year, though, seems to be a turning point. It shows that we need to be talking about this and listening to women at a business level. To understand the impact these life stages can have on women’s careers.
Why do you think it’s only now that we’re talking about such an important subject in the context of work?
I was one of those women who didn’t talk about it at work. I was on a board in 2005 and pregnant and I never spoke about it. And no women I spoke with ever did because we were so busy trying to be equal [with men] that we didn’t want to talk about anything that might detract from that. The fact you had a miscarriage or were desperately trying to get pregnant or you had really painful periods, you would have never mentioned it to a man or a woman.
I look back on it now and wonder how we went through all those years without referencing it. But you just didn’t. It was the same across wider society.
What do you think has changed to make those conversations happen?
Firstly, there are more women in the workplace. Second, as a society we are more open about fertility and menopause. There are high-profile people, like Mariella Frostrup, bringing these topics to the fore. And social media means people are seeing these discussions and sharing stories.
Alongside that, we are seeing change in business. PricewaterhouseCoopers has done a lot of research into why women are leaving the workplace and why they aren’t progressing to the level they should. Women are 52% of the potential workforce so there’s an economic challenge there. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep women working, so we have to analyse why so many leave or don’t progress at the same level as their counterparts.
It’s important that men are involved in this conversation as well. How do you enable that?
They have to be in the room, understand the issues and step up. And men have to support this because, like it or not, most CEOs are still men so if they don’t, the business won’t.
Supporting the conversation is about coming to events like the Women In Work Summit and hearing about the opportunities and challenges. But also, when it comes to parenting, for example, taking on more responsibility. Women still do the majority of childcare despite also having full-time jobs. I have female friends who earn more than their husbands, who are more career-oriented than their husbands, but still do more of the school pick-up and drop-offs. We need men and we need businesses to realise parenting is a shared responsibility.
Sarah Bentley, when she was at Thames Water, brought brought in the “Frontline Fathers“ initiative to help men feel comfortable saying they need to pick up the kids today or go to a parents’ evening. Because if we don’t get men doing it, then it’s never going to get better for women.
That’s why the Women in Work Summit is so important. We’ve been talking about this topic, now we need action on it. We want to learn what other businesses are doing, what we could do better and what will make business more successful. It will inspire people and give people something to take away and hopefully make changes in their organisation that will have a positive economic impact.
What are your hopes for the future of the summit?
We want it to be global. It’s going to New York on 9 November, then to Australia at some stage next year. The hope is it becomes a women in work festival. And that we can offer year-round support, whether that is through recommended assets or to be able to tap into our brilliant speakers or access to useful information or people who might be going through the same struggles as you with being a new mum or going through menopause.
We’re really passionate about this; we want to change things for the next generation of women, to help them and make work easier for them. And we want to see policy change, which is why we’ve got MPs and ministers coming to the first event in London too.
The Women in Work Summit is taking place at Kings Place in London on 26 September, 2023. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.wiwsummit.com