The highs and lows of women in the workplace

The final report of the Hampton-Alexander review was published at the end of last month. Progress has been significant, the number of female directors in FTSE 100 companies increased by 50% in the last five years. The report shows: 


  • number of women on FTSE 350 boards has risen from 682 to 1026 in five years;
  • FTSE 100, 250 and 350 all reached the target of women making up 33% of boards by the end of 2020; and
  • more than a third (34.3%) of FTSE 350 board positions are now held by women.
The review, which was government-backed, launched in 2016 to encourage UK listed companies to appoint more women to their boards and into senior leadership positions.  The government’s approach was voluntary and business-led with a nudge to comply rather than choosing to levy penalties and sanctions. 
No room for complacency 
Whilst there is some cause for celebration, there can be no room for complacency.  Men still dominate in the upper ranks of the UK’s top companies and there are no longer any all-male boards in the FTSE 350.  But the target of 33% women on those companies’ executive committees was missed -substantially – currently just 21% in the FTSE 250. The number of 'one and done' boards, where there is only one woman, has fallen from 116 in 2015 to 16.  
Whilst this looks promising, it is acknowledged that women are often appointed in the non-executive director role rather than progressing up through the ranks. There are currently only 17 female CEOs across all 350 companies and only two companies in the FTSE 100 have more women on their board than men: Diageo (60% female) and Severn Trent (55.6%).
With this final report, the data will now stop being collected, so how to keep the momentum going?  Only a government led initiative, or a regulator, has the power to collect data and without firms being forced to report, nothing will happen - as demonstrated by the 50% of companies who chose not to publish their gender pay gap data when statutory enforcement measures were suspended last year. 
Women and COVID-19
Last week, the world marked International Women’s Day, so it seems timely to consider how the unprecedented events over the last year have affected women and their opportunities in the workplace. COVID-19 appears to have had a disproportionate impact on women and potentially exacerbated existing employment inequalities.  
Immediately before the Covid-19 pandemic, in the UK women held 79% of jobs in the health and social work sector and 70% of jobs in education and were a predominant portion of the retail workforce - according to data from the ONS. These are jobs which could not easily be carried out remotely. 40% of women were working part time compared to 13% of men. Median weekly pay was £100 less for a woman (£528) than it was for a man (£628). Part-time workers, of which the majority are women, were also less likely to receive workplace training when compared to full-time employees (62 and 72 per cent respectively), and less likely to believe there were opportunities for progression (22 and 36 per cent respectively).
Research conducted by the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Zurich has shown that women have suffered a larger fall in earnings and are losing their jobs in greater numbers than men.  More women than men were furloughed and less women had their wages topped up beyond the 80% government cap under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
A report from the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) published last month, found both the job retention scheme and the self-employed income support scheme overlooked the existing inequalities women faced in the labour market and in their caring responsibilities and expressed concern that the government's priorities for recovery from the pandemic were “heavily gendered in nature”, with “investment plans skewed toward male-dominated sectors” such as construction.  
Many of the issues were known and acknowledged before the pandemic struck but COVID has amplified the potential impact. The government and businesses must act quickly and work together now to make sure that women’s rights, and their opportunities are protected.  If not, the concern is that inequalities will deepen even further not only for the generation of women in the workplace now, but for the future generations of working women that will follow.