This International Women’s Day, the theme is “Balance for Better”. In a year where our news cycles have been saturated with extreme opposites and deepening divides, balance feels like a well-timed palate cleanser, a reminder of the inclusion and unity we need to achieve meaningful progress.
As the workplace can feel like a microcosm of society, establishing balance here is both essential and complex. Issues that have historically affected women such as harassment, belittling and stereotypes about motherhood can become magnified in an office setting.
However, vast research has shown that a balanced workplace is not only good for women but good for business. In 2016, MACA published research stating “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity in their executive teams are 21% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile”. The research also estimated that “bridging the gender gap would add £150 billion to the UK economy by 2025”. Some important steps have been taken to dismantle potential barriers to women progressing in the workplace, for instance in April 2015 Shared Parental Leave became available in the UK meaning couples giving birth to or adopting a child could be entitled to share 50 weeks of leave in a flexible way.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements were catalysts for opening up conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace and in ensuring this issue was finally taken seriously by those in power. Although there is undeniably a long way to go, women beginning to feel as though they can finally hold individuals who act inappropriately to account and powerful men knowing there will be real, tangible consequences to unacceptable behaviour is a big step towards creating balance. In a 2018 Guardian article, author and feminist Deborah Francis White wrote “They’ve (men) developed empathy in all the places society has built consequences for them… ‘Wherever there is consistent lack of empathy in society there will almost certainly be a power imbalance so permanent that it looks normal.”
While research and legislation play a vital role in change, tackling a persistently unbalanced workplace culture and identifying more men as advocates for change standing alongside women is an equally big beast to tackle. Mentoring and sponsorship programmes can be invaluable tools for cultural change; it is so important for individuals developing their career to look to roles of power, decision making and influence and see someone they can relate to occupying them. In Wales, the Women’s Equality Network and Chwarae Teg are organisations running mentoring schemes which provide incredible opportunities for women to learn from one another. Schemes like this should be celebrated as significant movements towards workplace balance.
Across the country, the feeling of women challenging that which once seemed “permanent” and “normal” in the workplace is growing in strength and visibility. Today is a celebration of the balance achieved so far, a recognition of what is left to be done and an invitation to all to be included along the way.
– By Sophie Weeks, Welsh Women’s Aid Volunteer