Is gender equality at work improving?

The UK rises to 14th in PwC's Women in Work index, while women now sit on the boards of 57% of large companies. Hurray, but there's clearly a long way to go.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 07 Mar 2016

On the basis of a couple of studies released this week, you might think things are looking up for workplace equality in Britain. According to PwC’s Women in Work index (another day, another PwC index, this one conveniently drawing attention away from the firm's acrimonious break up with British American Tobacco) , the UK climbed four places to 14th among OECD countries. At the same time, research from Procorre says there are now women directors on 57% of large companies’ boards.

That’s great, right? Until you figure that the UK is only 14th of 27 OECD countries, and 43% of large firms have no women at all on their boards. Full equality still appears a way off.

Take the PwC index, which assessed various measures of pay and participation by gender in 2013. Scandinavian nations unsurprisingly lead the bunch, with Norway fending off Denmark and Sweden for the top spot. Comparing Norway to the UK is, as usual, fairly depressing.

The difference between men’s and women’s median wages in Britain is 18%. In Norway it’s 6%.  The difference between men and women’s labour force participation in Britain is 11%; in Norway it’s 4%. A full one in ten more Norwegian women are in full time work than British women (71% vs 61%).

On the positive side, Britain is still doing better than it was in the year 2000, but only by a few percent here and there, in all measures apart from the difference in median wages (which was around 25% at the millennium).

International comparisons are useful only up to a point anyway. While the likes of Norway might provide irritatingly impressive role models, it isn’t exactly fair to compare it with, say, Greece, where high levels of general unemployment obviously involve high levels of female unemployment, one of the other measures used in the index.

Returning to the UK, Procorre found 57.4% of firms with a turnover of £1bn or more had at least one woman director sitting on the board. That might seem high (if you’ve just arrived from the 1970s), but it seems less so when you think of how many people sit on the boards of most large companies. There are still a lot of all-male boardrooms even at the highest level.

In smaller firms, the picture is apparently worse. Only 34.7% of firms with a turnover of less than £1m had women directors. Procorre relationship manager Sophie Sarrat puts it down to small or absent HR departments. ‘The reality is that they often lack the resources and capacity that larger companies have to promote and develop women effectively through the pipeline,’ she said, adding that smaller boards necessarily have ‘less scope for diversity’.

In recent years there has been a push to make British boards more balanced between men and women. Lord Davies’ 2011 review called for 25% of directors to be female by the end of 2015, and there appears to have been encouraging progress towards that target. But there’s still a good way to go before anything like full equality is achieved.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

How to find the right mentor or executive coach

One minute briefing: McDonald’s UK CEO Paul Pomroy.

What you don't want to copy from Silicon Valley

Workplace Evolution podcast: Twitter's former EMEA chief Bruce Daisley on Saturday emails, biased recruitment and...

Research: How the most effective CEOs spend their time

Do you prefer the big, cross-functional meeting or the one-to-one catch-up?

6 rules for leading a remote team

Our C-suite panel share their distilled wisdom.

Showing vulnerability can be a CEO’s greatest strength

Want your people to bring their whole selves to work? You first.

A mini case study in horizon scanning

Swissgrid has instituted smart risk management systems for spotting things that could go wrong before...