International Women's Day

What you need to succeed: ways to bring about workplace equity

Equity can be defined as ‘proportional fairness’. In the workplace this means giving everyone what they need to be successful at their job. For International Women’s Day 2023 we look at how employers can identify and tackle issues which can deny women workplace equity. 

Bringing equity into the workplace is an enormous task — it’s not simply about setting up a few policies (although that can be a good start). It’s more to do with creating a company mindset which enables every employee to access the resources they need to succeed at work — and support their colleagues and partners.

What’s going on with women?

Whilst there are innumerable possible causes of workplace inequity, it does feel that, often, women bear the brunt. They’re juggling the ‘mental load’ of extra caring responsibilities, discrete health issues and work, together with an economic cost of living crisis to boot.

For many women, starting a family can affect their career to the point they cut back or simply stop work. Recent research1 suggests that 85% of women leave full-time work within 3 years of having children and 19% quit entirely (most often citing lack of employer flexibility and high childcare costs). The same report found a third fewer women in mid-management roles after having children — a massive loss in talent to the workforce.

At the other end of life’s rich tapestry, research from the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD)2 finds three out of five (59%) of women aged 45-54 experiencing menopause symptoms say it negatively impacts them at work. Some 30% of women required time off work due to their symptoms; one-third of these say they’re too embarrassed to tell their employer why.

And while considering women’s reproductive health, period pain causes women nearly 9 days of lost productivity at work per year, according to a study from the Netherlands.3 80% of the women surveyed reported going into work while feeling ill, and researchers recorded an average loss of productivity of 33% per year among the women due to ‘presenteeism’ — being present at work despite not feeling well enough carry out their job.

Similarly, some women find it difficult to share with their employer that they’re undergoing fertility treatment. Although employees have a right to absences for pre- and post-natal care in the UK, there’s no statutory right to pre-conception care. But the demands of work and the stress of treatment can really take their toll — 59% of respondents to a survey entitled The Impact of Fertility Problems,4 felt their employer would benefit from education to help them better understand the needs of employees undergoing treatment.

The Sandwich Generation — squeezed at both ends

One in 4 older female workers have caring responsibilities (versus 1 in 8 older male workers).5 Unum’s 2022 research6 revealed an estimated 6 million working people in the UK are stuck in the Sandwich Generation, caring for both their children and older parents. One in 3 reported this detrimentally impacted their mental health, and 29% said these dual responsibilities were causing financial strain. 21% say their employer doesn’t help them balance work and home responsibilities, despite 24% needing time off to manage their caring responsibilities. 

In 2016, research from PwC7 found that 550,000 professional women in the UK were on extended career breaks for caring reasons; 420,000 of them wanted to return to work at some point. 

Light at the end of the tunnel

The good news is there’s a huge amount of support and resources that good employers can offer women to help bridge the inequity gap at work. The most important thing is embracing a top-down equity mindset. Putting equity front of mind for senior leaders ensures a holistic approach that can help turn the equity ideal into reality.

With women saying that they’re sometimes too embarrassed to tell their employers about personal issues, creating a culture of open communication is vital. Positively welcome feedback from staff and be willing to act on it. Invest in training for your managers, so they feel comfortable to have potentially difficult conversations. Set aside time for 1-2-1 meetings, so you can understand and respond to issues that affect employees.

Make it clear that women can talk to their line manager, someone from HR or even a trusted colleague about anything troubling them or standing in their way. If you already have policies to address many of these issues, consider that employees might not actually be aware of resources that could help so ensure that you are communicating frequently.

Putting policies in place

Achieving equity across the workforce requires understanding the individual needs of your employees and being flexible enough to accommodate them. So many workplace challenges can be addressed by employers taking time with individuals to devise ways to ease the pressure. 

This individual approach is important rather than offering everyone the same advantages or benefits. That is equality, but what one person might need to succeed at work could be very different for someone else. Equity instead provides everyone with what they specifically need to achieve success.

At Unum, we see hybrid and flexible working arrangements as really important for addressing several key issues causing inequity for working women.

Some of our staff work ‘compressed hours’ (allowing them to complete a full week’s work in 4 days, freeing a precious extra day at home with their young children). We’ve negotiated shorter working days and accommodated part-time positions too — whether they’re returning to work after having a baby or starting their career with us on terms that suit them.

Plus, our hybrid working policy lets our staff make choices about where they work during the day, enabling them to balance work and life. It enables people needing to take a child or elderly parent to the doctor to log off a little earlier; women who have had a bad night due to numerous hot flushes to start work a little later; someone who’s in the middle of fertility treatment the chance to work from home, where they may feel more comfortable.

Around 25% of businesses have a menopause policy. At Unum we’ve recently launched a Reproductive Health policy, with a framework to support employees affected by a range of reproductive health issues (menstrual health, fertility and related treatments, and menopause). More than that, it’s allowed us to consider the impact of these on all our employees — the policy allows anyone to take time off to accompany a partner for fertility treatment for example. 

Employees can help control the agenda

Whilst it’s imperative for senior leadership to set the tone, it’s equally important that employees themselves are empowered to drive the equity agenda forward. Employee network groups help people come together and build community, network and share their experiences with others. 

Equity can be a tricky concept to grasp and a tough reality to deliver. But employers who set a strong company tone, remain flexible and accommodating and truly invest in giving all their staff every opportunity to succeed will be rewarded with a high-performing, loyal and engaged workforce.

1 Careers After Babies Report
CIPD research
Productivity loss due to menstruation-related symptoms
The Impact of Fertility Problems
Living Longer: Office for National Statistics
6 Research conducted by Opinium between 4-8 March 2022 amongst a nationally representative sample of 2,000 UK adults
Women Returners Research Report