Michael Robinson looks at the changing role of women in business.
Women have never been on an equal footing when it comes to the world of work. For decades, the gender stereotypes could not have been more prevalent – men going out to work and women staying at home keeping the house in order. However, in the last 30 years, more and more women have started to emerge and become success stories. The gender gap is slowly but surely closing in, but is there still a long way to go?
The 21st century has seen a sudden shift in the ‘traditional’ family setup, with greater recognition of gender in UK legislation has assisted to change the gender-role divisions. In response, women are more economically and socially independent, representing 42 per cent of the UK workforce and 55 per cent of university graduates. Yet women are still less likely than men to be associated with top positions in the UK. The inequality is reflected in the pay gap between men and women, despite the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1975. Over their working lives, analysts estimate women are likely to earn £300,000 less than men, which has called for the government to do more to close the gender pay gap.
Its not only large businesses and corporations who are finding it difficult – smaller businesses and establishments owned by women and employ women also find it tough. Jacqueline Murphy owns a hair shop in Preston, and has spoken out on the challenges she faced asking for a loan from the bank to start up her business.
She said: “It was hard starting up my hair shop – banks do not want to lend to women in my experience. They have this certain snobbery about women who want to be business owners”.
These sentiments are echoed around the Lancashire area; many women feel it’s harder to secure backing for their business just because they’re a woman. The covert discrimination against women puts UK PLC back to the 1950’s and reinforces the role of stereotypes, social and cultural norms, which underline expectations about gender and the gender role. Decades of research has shown stereotypes about men and women do have huge impacts on the wider beliefs of many about they should and should not behave.
“Being a woman of colour, it slightly aggravated the situation as many perceive black people as being thugs, criminals and no good”, Ms Murphy said. “But in reality only a small minority of black people are like that”.
And she makes a good point; there aren’t many people of colour in the public domain who have set up their own business being a role model for others. The Black British community are one of the smallest minorities represented in the business world. The lack of black entrepreneurial role models for the next generation is woefully underrepresented – coupled with the fact women are also makes for grim reading.
However, there is a silver lining in Lancashire and the UK, where there has been a steady growth of businesses set up by women. In 2013 there were almost 1.5 million women registered as self-employed, an increase of approximately 300,000 since before the economic downturn in 2008. Even though women are getting back into work, the appeal of self-employment for women is seen as the most flexible for them later in life.
In the long term, female employees will want to start a family and settle down. However, the fear of losing their jobs or not being able to get back into the same position they were in before starting a family is a real worry.
A report by the Women and Equalities Committee, chaired by Conservative MP Maria Miller, identified a lack of flexible working opportunities for people with families – including variable start and finish times, working from home or working fewer days as an option. The report concluded that this is the main driving force between the differences in pay between men and women.
Hermione Way, a mother of one and Head of European Communications at the dating app Tinder, has said that flexible working hours has allowed to do her job more effectively and maintain a work-life balance.
“Since having my daughter, it’s always been my priority to put her needs first over work”, said Hermione.
“Finding the right balance and the right job that would allow me to spend more time with my daughter has been a must. Tinder as a company are very understanding and give me that flexibility to work from home or in the office as and when I need to”.
For mothers returning to work from maternity leave, it makes sense to have flexibility in the work place; the few hours’ leeway can be make or break between career confidence or career abandonment. If multi-nationals, employees and employers learn to welcome to changes in working hours, it could be the answer in the long term for a more productive and economically viable UK PLC. Flexible working hours could be the difference needed for the economy to bridge the gender pay gap if we let it.