As a recent university graduate and a disciple of Nora Ephron, I often return to the late screenwriter’s address to the 1996 graduating class of Wellesley College, Massachusetts. It’s dated now, at nearly thirty years old, but much of its core message still rings true to me.
“Don't let the New York Times article about the brilliant success of Wellesley graduates in the business world fool you—there's still a glass ceiling.” Ephron told the all-female graduating class, soon to begin their adult lives in earnest.
“Don't let the number of women in the work force trick you—there are still lots of magazines devoted almost exclusively to making perfect casseroles and turning various things into tents.”
There are many aspects of the women’s liberation movement that have enhanced women’s standing, comparative to their male counterparts, in the professional world. Women are better represented than they were years ago on C-suite panels, and the number of women in STEM and other male-dominated areas of the task force is steadily rising.
However, there is still notable disparity. The gender pay gap in the UK has been declining steadily over time, but there is still a way to go. Under-representation of women in C-suite positions and in boardrooms also remains severe; in 2021, only 8% of FTSE100 CEOs were women, and only 13.5% of Executive Director positions were held by female employees. As of this year, 10% of top US corporation CEOs are women; while the increase in this percentage every year is cause for celebration, the meagre figure only demonstrates more starkly how far women in industry still need to go to reach true representation.
Earlier this month, the UN Secretary General cautioned that gender parity is still 300 years away; it is difficult not to feel some pessimistic certainty that he is right, considering the setbacks women have faced all over the world in the last year.
At the end of last year, university education for women in Afghanistan was suspended, which affected over 100,000 female students attending government and private higher education institutions and has augured a frightening period of history for women in the country. Since Afghanistan has been under Taliban rule, restrictions upon women’s freedoms have been ratified by legislation, and they have been gradually removed from public life.
In June 2022, nearly 50 years after restrictions on abortions in the US were made unconstitutional by Roe v. Wade, the constitutional right to abortion for all women in the US was removed by Supreme Court ruling. Most abortions are now banned in 13 states, with the state of Georgia banning the procedure from six weeks of pregnancy, before most women even realise they are pregnant.
Such setbacks in the progression of women’s rights demonstrate why equity is necessary. There is no level playing field, and treating acts of equality as if they stand on even ground does a disservice to women socially, financially, and economically.
Equity is for everyone
A key message of International Women’s Day, and of feminist thought, is that gender parity is important for all genders, not just for women. As bell hooks succinctly summarises in her book Feminism is for Everybody, “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression”. The feminist movement, and the tenets that underpin our celebration of International Women’s Day, speak of ‘ethics of mutuality and interdependency’ via which we can collectively be free of a status quo founded on basic inequalities.
In industry, the benefits of gender representation are obvious. Encouraging diverse perspectives in business – not only in gender, but also in race, sexuality, and lived experience – can strengthen your client offering and make your organisation a source of more fruitful collaborative ideas and inspiration. Women are over-represented in roles like HR, but positions traditionally out of reach to women, such C-suite, technical and directorship, should be realistic aspirations for everyone.
Championing diversity at the leadership level encourages further diversity throughout the company. It is important that companies set a leadership example that represents not only the gender population of the country, but also remains cognisant of the impact women can have on the wider professional world.
To be equitable, businesses must be flexible
COVID-19 changed our perspective on remote and hybrid working, and for many women, the chance to work remotely has become a mainstay of their working lives. Offering a flexible approach to in-person working can allow firms to demonstrate their understanding that, for working mothers, a strict nine-to-five working schedule may not be possible.
Spain has become the first country in Europe, as of last month, to approve menstrual leave for women suffering from severe menstrual symptoms, for up to five days every cycle. For many women, the discomfort of menstrual symptoms is enough to make a working day difficult at least once per month, but for the 10% of women worldwide suffering from endometriosis, a chronic condition associated with debilitating menstrual pain, this law represents a huge step in the right direction for women’s equity in the workplace. Menopause care in the workplace is the next stage in female health that will benefit from laws progressing gender equity.
How can we embrace equity?
As she closes her address to the Wellesley graduating class, Ephron says: “I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”
Implicit in the message of International Women’s Day is encouragement of rule-breaking, of examining the established societal mores in which we operate and asking: do these social and professional environments allow everyone to thrive? Embracing equity is recognising that, despite progress already made over the last century, equality is simply not enough when women require a different level of support to achieve the same success.
The starting line for women is metres behind, and the head start enjoyed by men is keenly seen in industry. By thinking about how we can make the world not only equal, but equitable to all genders, we can begin to embrace equity, and see the benefits of a female population supported, and achieving their goals.