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Equity for women is not only a societal issue, it’s an economic one

Equity for women is not only a societal issue, it’s an economic one

Equity for women is not only a societal issue, it’s an economic one

Sarah Howard MBE, Chair of the BCC:

Several months ago, the British Chambers of Commerce set out to identify the moments in a woman’s life where she is forced to leave the workforce or falls behind in her career progression. Women of all ages are reluctantly leaving the labour force due to often unavoidable life events which impact their ability to continue their careers. The problem is not necessarily with the events themselves, but the lack of support available to women to allow them to continue with their working lives. 

To assess the magnitude of this problem, we conducted a landmark survey, with research company Find Out Now, of more than 4,000 individuals on the impact childcare, caring responsibilities and menopause are having on their careers. The findings were stark and yet, unfortunately, unsurprising.

Two thirds of women feel they have missed out on career progression because of childcare, while 86% of female respondents believe there is not sufficient support available for people with caring responsibilities. When I started a family 26 years ago, the only solution to raise my family and continue working was to leave the security of my job and set up my own company. I had hoped things had moved forward but with so many families still being priced out of childcare, nowhere near enough progress has been made.

Our findings on menopause were particularly interesting. While one in three women who have gone through menopause felt that it impacted their career negatively, the level of concern about the potential impact of menopause was actually higher. For those who are yet to experience menopause, almost half believe they will miss out on career opportunities as a result.

While this is, of course, a cause for concern, I believe there is a silver lining hidden within this finding. Up until very recently, menopause and the impact it can have on a woman’s career was rarely spoken about. When I had my first hot flush during a meeting I was chairing, in a room of 14 men and two women, I had no idea what to expect. Luckily the man next to me knew exactly what was going on, handed me a couple of napkins and got me a glass of iced water. He knew; his wife had been through the same and I’m eternally grateful to him for his support. I then found that no one was talking about it and felt I needed to speak up and normalise my random melting, loss of words and need to adjust my work patterns so men and women were not embarrassed to talk about it.

While much taboo still remains, in particular in male-dominated workplaces, I think the level of concern amongst younger woman about the potential impact shows that more people are thinking about menopause. It is a very individual experience, and no two women are likely to experience it in exactly the same way – some may hardly notice it. But raising awareness of the issue is the first step on any journey to making meaningful progress, and I hope that women are speaking about it more openly and feel empowered to share their worries and experiences with colleagues and bosses.

The next step on the journey is to put the right support in place to ensure having a child, caring for family, or going through menopause does not negatively impact a woman’s career. Given the significance of our research findings, the BCC is launching a three-year gender equity campaign to ensure equity in the workplace. The campaign will be based on a three-point plan, to include:

  • Short-term action: Convene employment experts, Chamber CEOs, and employers to create a Chamber Workplace Equity Commission.
  • Medium-term work: The commission to analyse research findings and case studies, to develop policies for Government and best practices for businesses enshrining equity in the workplace.
  • Long-term goal: Re-run the same survey with the aim of moving the dial on the findings we published this week.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the fantastic successes of women, but it’s also important to take a moment this week to reflect on the magnitude of the work that remains. I had the privilege of attending a reception at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday where I met women from all different backgrounds, and the one shared consensus was that the journey to full and true equality for women is nowhere near over.

Ensuring we keep women in the workplace is not only good for women and society, it is imperative for our economy. With over one million unfilled vacancies across the UK, we simply can’t afford to continue losing the experience and skills of our women from our labour force.



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