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In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, Hephzi Pemberton, Founder of Equality Group, challenges the top three diversity myths inhibiting gender equality in the workplace.
Diversity isn’t a luxury: it’s good for business. So why don’t more companies reap the rewards? The following three misconceptions can get in the way of embracing change and dispelling them is a vital step in ensuring diversity at all levels, argues Hephzi Pemberton.
More men than women are employed in jobs involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but this is not because women are worse at them. In fact, girls often outperform boys in all STEM subjects in UK schools, achieving more of the highest grades in their final exams at the age of 18.
More girls than boys choose to study biology up to this level, and the ratio for chemistry is almost at parity. Although other subjects attract fewer females, research has established that this is not due to an absence of talent, since “there is no longer a gender difference in mathematics performance,” to cite one example.
More generally, “there are no innate gender differences in academic ability,” says the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, whose PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) studies rank global performance in education. However, “girls – even high-achieving girls – have less confidence in their abilities in mathematics and science, and are more anxious towards mathematics than boys.”
This is sometimes reflected in poorer test scores, compounding the cultural deterrents to pursuing a degree in a STEM-related field. “If girls don’t believe in their aptitude for certain subjects,” the OECD concludes, “why would they continue to study those subjects when they are no longer required to?”
However, numbers are rising as attitudes shift. Companies can help by engaging with girls at a younger age. “Increasing the number of visible female role models in senior roles in science, technology and engineering companies will make these sectors more attractive,” says WISE, a UK network promoting female involvement in STEM. “We want girls with ambition to imagine ‘that could be me’.”
Although employers now try to recruit from under-represented groups, there is still a large pool of untapped talent. However, companies need to work harder to attract it.
Corporate cultures often put people off with unconscious biases. Interviewers tend to favour people like themselves, and draw false conclusions about other applicants. For example, twice as many employers as female staff in financial services believe “our industry sector is not viewed as attractive to women,” according to research by PwC.
Despite promoting diversity, some companies aren’t promoting more women. To many females, their policies sound “more of a high level commitment than a reality on the ground,” says PwC. As a result, fewer put themselves forward, or they decide to find a different employer, whose more inclusive culture rewards their ambition.
“Companies have made great progress on gender diversity but we still have much to do when it comes to ethnic and cultural diversity,” says Sir John Parker, who chaired the recent Parker Review on inclusion. The upper echelons of companies “do not reflect the society we live in, nor do they reflect the international markets in which they operate.”
The problem is less with the pipeline than a blockage at the end of it. It’s all too easy to blame recruitment challenges on a shortage of candidates, when really there are plenty who just need to be targeted and attracted more effectively. Diversity ought to be interpreted as part of reputational risk, which is how outstanding candidates see it when they choose to apply elsewhere.
The belief that females drop out to have families restricts opportunities. Women can miss out on jobs due to lingering stereotypes about their commitment, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Analysing corporate data, internal research at PwC shows “more women leave than men at our most junior grades only – and at this point in their lives very few of these women are at the stage of starting a family.” Meanwhile, the study discovered, “at all other grades, more men actually leave than women. But we were replacing both our male and female leavers with predominately male, experienced hires.”
This is a widespread problem. Half of the financial services companies surveyed by PwC have no programme to reintegrate women who take career breaks. This needs to change to assist working mothers who have the potential to fill senior roles. PwC has since changed its priorities, noting: “We have identified diverse experienced hires as a critical KPI for global diversity acceleration.”
There’s also a general need for more flexible working arrangements. At the moment, barely 2 percent of UK fathers take up the right to shared parental leave, partly out of fears they can’t afford to. “If the government is serious about equality at work and the gender pay gap,” says the advocacy group Working Families, “it should consider also introducing a properly paid, standalone period of extended paternity leave.”
Ultimately, if businesses adapt to accommodate people’s diverse needs, everyone will want to work there for the long term.