A Woman’s World? 5 things learned from our IWD panel

Mark Watson

Monday 8th March marked International Women’s Day and in celebration of this we hosted a panel discussion to challenge gender stereotypes in the home in lockdown and beyond.

Before the pandemic, it was estimated that globally, for every hour of unpaid work done by a man, a woman had worked three. Now, in the age of remote working, that number has doubled. In fact, global data from the UN suggests that the coronavirus pandemic could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality as women once again assume responsibility for domestic chores and family care.

We gathered four brilliant panellists together from brands and agencies to ask what they’re doing to support, empower and elevate a generation of working women who are at risk of being left behind. This is what we discovered.

1. There are still widely held beliefs about gendered roles in the home, and the pandemic has only exacerbated these issues.

Working from home has blurred the line between work and home, and this has been particularly affecting women. Home schooling has added an increased burden for many, and recent research has shown that women are disproportionately undertaking domestic responsibilities.

The Fawcett society has found that women are more likely than men to lose their jobs or be burdened with childcare during the pandemic, and a third of working mothers reported that they had lost work or hours due to childcare due to Covid. This rose to 44% for Black, Asian and minority ethnic mothers.

Jo Hind, founder of Women’s Leadership Consultancy BirdSoup mentioned that she recently read a survey that girls and women aged 16-24 are doing the majority of housework and chores during the pandemic. The rate of unpaid work that women undertake is estimated to be worth £140bn to the UK economy, and has been increasing during the pandemic.

2. In the workplace, people still often make assumptions based on gender, and the pandemic has amplified this.

As Jo Hind said, these gender stereotypes are reflected in our professional lives too, as employers ‘wouldn’t possibly think that you’re going to have a father who says, look, you know, I’m not available at that time because of domestic responsibilities. It’s up to all of us to challenge those stereotypes, otherwise they’ll keep perpetuating.’

Multiple women on the panel expressed that they had experienced different expectations from their workplace compared to their male partner. The men were generally expected to be available for meetings at all times of day and even on paternity leave, whereas women were assumed to want less responsibility after having a child without even being asked.

It was agreed across the board that it’s essential for businesses to be open-minded and encourage men to have a better work-life balance. Part of the reason why so many men aren’t taking time out for care-giving is because it’s still thought of as a woman’s responsibility, and until we see more senior men leading by example this is unlikely to change and become normalised. While it may seem like a small gesture, as Marketing consultant and fomer Hiscox and Coca-Cola executive Annabel Venner stated, ‘there’s nothing more powerful than a senior person in your business saying I can’t make this meeting this afternoon because I’m going to a sports day’.

3. There is still a stigma around Shared Parental Leave, with women feeling the responsibility falls to them and men fearing stepping away from work.

Even though the UK government introduced shared parental leave in 2015, many women feel obliged to take maternity leave and many men don’t feel as if they are in a position to accept the leave and take the time off. Accordingly to HMRC, only 2% of eligible couples took shared parental leave in 2019, and many employers still aren’t offering enhanced paternity pay alongside maternity leave. The statutory minimum is only £148.68 per week, which is often lower than employer’s maternity packages and leaves some families poorer, and the process of taking the shared leave can be complicated.

Due to ingrained gender stereotypes, , there is often an automatic assumption between heterosexual couples that the woman will take the leave and the man won’t, without an explicit discussion necessarily taking place.

Men may fear losing their position or social standing at work, and may feel intimidated at the idea of asking for time off work for childcare as most initiatives in this area, such as flexible working, are typically aimed at women. Men who do take leave can face stigma from male colleagues, whether tacit or explicit.

The problem holds women back from leadership roles in more ways than one. If women leave the labour market for even just a short period of time, or reduce their hours to part-time for childcare reasons, data proves they are more likely to be in a low-paid and low-skilled job and remain there throughout their working life.

4. Our industry needs more diverse female role models and more women in leadership roles.

tms’s (formerly The Marketing Store) Sam Woods and Snap’s Eyabo Macauley discussed that although they began their careers at very similar ages and met in their 20s, their experiences as a white man and a black woman have been very different. Whilst Sam was promoted, Eyabo had to keep moving sideways to move upwards. Sadly, this is too often the case for Black and Minority Ethnic women (BME), who are often overlooked for promotion and experience racism at work. BME women are also overrepresented in lower paid, insecure jobs and at higher risk of being underemployed.

In our panel discussion, it was noted that a lot of networking that goes on often involves male-dominated activities like golf, and invites are not extended to women. Moreover, a lot of assumptions are still made about women at work, with leadership skills framed with a male lens and women criticised as not strategic or commercial enough.

As Sam Woods said, ‘ultimately men at the top of companies need to be putting more women in positions of power so that they can accommodate and recognise the needs of other women’.

In addition to this, companies need to consider how they can include, accommodate and uplift all women, including transgender women, disabled women, and women of all races, sexualities and backgrounds.

5. Holding our companies and ourselves accountable is key, and consumers will see through it if a brand’s approach is not genuine.

While it is important for businesses to commemorate International Women’s Day and other initiatives such as Pride, we have to make sure that companies are doing, not just saying.

Brands need to support their female staff and consider carefully how to communicate on women’s issues with their audience. As Eyabo Macauley said, brands need to ensure that their voice is ‘authentic, and it’s genuine, and it’s not just paying lip service.’

Advertising is definitely improving and showing more diversity; and in part that’s down to clients holding them accountable. As Annabel Venner mentioned ‘brands are starting to challenge their agencies in terms of making sure that you’ve got that really really diverse view on what you’re doing and what you’re putting out there.’ But we still have some way to go, in 2020, only 4% of women featured in ads were portrayed in leadership positions, only 3% of ads portrayed women with obvious intelligence and only 1% showed women with obvious intelligence. 3 in 5 adverts still feature all or a majority of white people and only 7% of adverts feature Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups as the dominant or main character.

Absolutely key to this is representation within the company; if your target audience isn’t reflected in the staff, it’s unlikely to feel truly genuine, and may risk missing the mark. As Sam Woods stated: ‘if you’re going to play a part in this conversation, you can’t dip in and dip out. Consumers, they smell contrivance a mile off. They want to see brands trying to make the world a better place, a fairer place, an equal place.’

Companies need to really be willing to listen, to learn and to change, tackling gender bias and inequality in the workplace head on and giving all women the opportunity to thrive and progress.


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