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Karen Holden from A City Law Firm on why looking out for women’s welfare is about legislative but also cultural change.
There are so many life-changing events that impact women as we develop our careers, be they relationships , children, health and other factors. How we can gain support, work with our employers, continue to develop our careers and goals and protect ourselves are part of a conversation we need to be having.
It was The National Services Act 1942 that conscripted women into the workplace and since then the world for women in the workplace has evolved. Equality is the ethos many women have striven for, particularly working parents, but when pursuing equality, how much consideration of female-based life factors should workplaces consider and address for equality to actually be achieved?
Spain has made it legal for women to take so many days a month off, as a right, for menstrual leave; the UK is reviewing its employment laws in line with Brexit and changes appear to be coming.
Women have different biological challenges to those of men. For many years spent battling the glass
ceiling, these factors have been consciously ignored by many women so as to fit in with the male perception of being successful and ‘career focused’. There has been no room for discussing the menopause or fertility issues at work, those elements of difference that could make us seem less capable or driven than male colleagues. In fact many women have experienced the sense of obvious ‘inconvenience’ to their workplace when taking maternity leave, have struggled during pregnancy or suffered a miscarriage and then had to fight to return to their roles. The societal belief that biology and caring responsibilities are predominantly female issues has fostered a real disadvantage for many women in the workplace, the return to work after childbirth being one of the most stark ones. Leaving earlier than a male colleague to collect a child being another.
The Equality Act 2010 and subsidiary legislation, such as flexible working provisions, have sought to address these issues. We all know what the statutory protections offer, but, in reality, there is still a perception in many workplaces that by having children or being menopausal, you are not able to do your job efficiently and have lost some layer of ambition if you request flexible working.
The inherent unfairness of this view is perhaps best illustrated by the recent parliamentary decision not to include menopause as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. It was rejected at the risk of appearing to be discriminatory to men with long-term medical issues. The irony is that, in rejecting this inclusion, there is an ongoing risk of discrimination in the workplace by virtue of a biological experience which only women have. The rationale behind that shines a light on the thinking that continues to ensure that workplaces see more men than women progressing. The law, however, can illustrate the issues but the welfare of women in the workplace can only be really assisted by the workplace environment in which they find themselves and by a change of culture.
In seeking equality are we as working women expecting too much and are we now trying to move statutory protection to tip the balance in our favour as that recent Parliamentary decision may imply? The answer is surely no. Statistically only 34% of company boards have women on them (acccording to PWC 2022 statistics for the UK). Even with the statutory protections in place, the reality is that there is what can be described as a ‘sticky floor’ situation for women, particularly working mums who take advantage of flexible working or part-time working, as they then run the risk of appearing to be uninterested in career progression. Menopausal women with a vast amount of workplace experience can also fall into that bracket and the concept of menopausal leave was also disregarded by the Government. It appears as though a period of leave for one aspect of female biology, having babies, can be accepted but a period of leave for another, menopause, is a step too far. Men do not have babies or go through the menopause and, in the vast amount of cases, their careers are not impacted by either event, which is why the redress is necessary. How can there be true equality otherwise?
Highlighting the welfare of women in the workplace should be explored as part of extending a level playing field to every employee. The challenges that result from biology and societal expectations that women face should not be shied away from in the workplace or considered to be factors that impact on their career progression. Policies which encourage employees to speak to employers regarding fertility treatment, miscarriage and menopause open up workplace cultures so that they foster consideration of each other, regardless of gender. Knowing a flexible working policy is there and feeling confident to make a request without concern for the career impact it might have should be a standard position. Starting a working day at 09.30 when having a school drop-off or checking in on an elderly parent or due to menopause insomnia can make a massive difference to the welfare of women in the workplace and that overall mental health improvement can only assist their workplace performance. There should be no
inferences drawn in a workplace for those requirements being available and used.
The shifts required for real equality in the workplace do not just require statutory employment right protection but also an understanding that, in utilising those protections, there is no perception of being lesser in your workplace role. These shifts can only be truly fostered by an ability to share experiences without concern of being labelled as unable to carry out a role or being less keen to progress as a consequence. That starts with the culture in the workplace and an overall view that prioritises the welfare of women and all staff.
Accommodating difficult life experiences for women and men in the workplace is a key strategy in maintaining a productive, invested workforce. Welfare is fundamental to success in professional and personal settings. In light of this and as a female-led law firm with working parents at the fore, we are always looking for ways to publicise the ways to change these cultures and how best to progress. We offer webinars looking at how to highlight and support the welfare of women in the workplace. Policies, accessibility and open discussion will lead to a change of perception and it is that change of perception which will lead to true equality in the working world.
*Karen Holden is founder of A City Law Firm. Having been admitted to the roll in 2005. Karen was invited and given freedom of the City in 2019 for her work in Equality as such is part of the Guild of Freeman.