Getting to equity: time to celebrate or worry?

8 March 2021    By Alison Maitland

It’s apt that this year’s International Women’s Day theme is #ChooseToChallenge. Even though there are some milestones to celebrate, the journey towards gender and other forms of equity faces troublesome obstacles and there is plenty ahead to challenge. I see two big threats to hard-won progress, one driven by the economic and social fallout of Covid-19, the other by prejudice and ignorance. 

Socio-economic impact

Globally, the pandemic has hit women harder than men in terms of job losses and the likelihood they will drop out of the labour market. Young people and those in lower skilled, lower paid jobs have also been badly affected, exacerbating inequality and social divides.

In Britain, the Fawcett Society has warned of a ‘coronavirus crossroads’ that could severely set back gender equality. A third of working mothers have lost work or hours due to a lack of childcare in the crisis. That proportion reaches 44% for mothers from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities.

Government policies in response to Covid-19 have ‘overlooked the labour market and caring inequalities faced by women’, according to the Women and Equalities parliamentary committee. For many women, this ‘passive approach to gender equality’ has made existing problems worse.

Prejudice and ignorance

The second threat is reactionary forces that have been emboldened by the rhetoric of nationalist and populist leaders around the world in recent years. We can’t ignore the fact that 47% of US voters last December wanted to re-elect a president who scorned gender and racial equity and encouraged white supremacists.

Prejudice and ignorance have always been with us. But recently it’s become more acceptable in some circles to openly disparage attempts to address racial, gender or other forms of bias as ‘wokeness’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Unequal Britain, a new study of attitudes by King’s College, London, shows that income inequality between men and women is low on Britons’ list of priorities. And while two-thirds of people say it would be a problem if the income gap between white people and ethnic minorities grew as a result of the crisis, as many as a quarter say they wouldn’t consider it a problem.

No excuse at the top

Leaders do not have the excuse of ignorance. Yet recent stories show how bias persists at ‘the top’. Yoshiro Mori was forced to step down as president of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee when he came under fierce criticism for saying women talk too much and having many female board members would prolong meetings. This view struck me as particularly ironic given the oft-heard complaint from women about men talking over them.

Bill Michael had to resign as chairman of KPMG UK after telling employees they should stop moaning about working conditions in the pandemic and that discrimination caused by unconscious bias was ‘complete and utter crap’.

The under-representation of women in crucial decision-making is one of the big issues of our time. Look at the climate crisis. It took a campaign by 400 leading women environmentalists to force a change in the male-dominated UK top team for this year’s UN Climate Summit. When half the world’s voices are not represented in addressing the biggest threat to the planet, it unquestionably impacts us all.


Yes, there are some trends to celebrate. One positive is that it is becoming harder to get away with this kind of bias in public forums. Unfortunately, it remains alive and well beneath the surface. However, there is less tolerance of leaders who make comments like this – at least in large, public-facing organisations with reputations to nurture. It’s probably no accident that both Mori and Michael have been replaced by women.

There’s another sign of change in the form of financial incentives. Large investor groups are increasingly putting pressure on companies that lack women and ethnic diversity in senior roles. The private equity firm Carlyle was recently reported to be tying the price of its loans to the gender and ethnic minority mix on companies’ boards, and to be helping them to hire diverse directors.

Another big milestone is that the pandemic has been the tipping point for a more flexible working model. Working from home, or a location closer to home, is likely to be a far bigger component of working life for many in the future, finally giving people beneficial choice over how they fit the different pieces of their lives together. If well-managed, and individually tailored, it should help many people living with disabilities or caring for others to be economically active.

Rising to the challenge

Governments can set the tone and change the discourse if they put their minds to it. Assessing policies for their impact on harder hit segments of the population, for example working parents or marginalised ethnic groups, is crucial to redress inequity. Legislation underpins progress and governments need to keep up the momentum. The UK government has promised to reinstate mandatory gender pay gap reporting, suspended in the crisis, but not until October. This should extend to ethnicity and be broadened to provide more granular measures of what’s happening in organisations. It’s often only with transparent data that change starts to happen.

Employers should adopt a holistic approach to change, not rely on ineffective one-off initiatives. Rebekah Steele and I set out how to do this in our book INdivisible  about creating inclusive organisations. It requires: leadership commitment and action; data and structures that underpin diversity and inclusion; accountability and skills training for all; and a laser focus on the competitive advantage to be gained from having a diverse mix of people contributing their best ideas.

Individually, we can also make an impact in our sphere of influence. Confront our own biases and assumptions. Support women and people from marginalised groups when they speak out – don’t marginalise them further. Use our power and influence to sponsor someone in early or mid-career who may not have benefited from the advantages we’ve had. Start a mutual mentorship with someone who’s different, and give each other actionable feedback.

Steps like these make it easier for people who’re not part of the mainstream population in organisations to be assertive, instead of keeping their heads down, when others commit everyday ‘micro-aggressions’ against them by undermining their work, belittling their identity, or treading on their values.

We cannot take hard-won progress for granted. What are you choosing to challenge in the year ahead?

This is an edited version of an article first published by IWE, 7 March 2021.

©Alison Maitland, all rights reserved

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