ICAS President: 'Why all CAs must #ChooseToChallenge'
The pandemic will damage progress towards gender equality if we are not vigilant about its demands on women, says Catherine Burnet CA.
Monday 8 March is International Women’s Day. It’s a day to celebrate the achievements of women and discuss how we can accelerate progress towards gender equality. The 2021 theme is #ChooseToChallenge, focusing on an individual’s power to speak out and question discrimination. The message is simple: if we each make the choice to challenge bias, then we are exercising our own capacity to change things for the better.
As CAs, it’s a role that we already know well. Questioning and thinking critically about information and systems ensures that they are robust, representative and reliable. So let’s apply that mindset to the workplace itself. If you experience or witness something that promotes or reinforces bias, choose to challenge it.
It’s an important time to take on this role of challenger. We are not yet an equal society. The gender pay gap among all employees in the UK was 15.5% in 2020 and women only hold 34.5% of FTSE 100 board roles. And early research suggests that the pandemic is placing disproportionate pressure on all women, irrespective of income and seniority, and risking the progress that has been made in years past. A recent survey of 3,000 women in Europe and the US by Boston Consulting Group found that working women are now spending an average of 15 hours a week more on unpaid domestic labour than men. In the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that mothers were 23% more likely than fathers to have become temporarily or permanently unemployed during the pandemic.
At certain points in my career I have been able to put more informal, agile working arrangements in place, with the support of those I was working with. When I had my first son I moved to part time. On paper that meant working four days a week, but my team and I knew my hours would fluctuate with the pace of work. That could mean three days a week during quieter periods, five or more during busier times. We reached a common-sense compromise that suited the business and my family life.
I realise not everyone will be able to achieve that flexibility. A key marker of progress is formalising these informal arrangements and ensuring that as many people as possible can tailor their working life to address both company and personal needs. The impact of these initiatives goes far beyond those who use them. A return-to-work programme, for example, empowers all employees to discuss becoming a parent, and how that life-changing event fits with work more comfortably. It contributes across the business to a more adaptable culture.
Greater flexibility at work is also a reflection of the wider trends in society. Advances in technology mean that we now expect a degree of customisation in everything that we do, from how we shop to the shows we watch. Why shouldn’t work be the same?
Now is a critical time to have this conversation. By blurring the boundaries between our personal and professional lives, the pandemic has made all of us reconsider our relationship with work. And by necessitating the spread of agile working, it has proven that a more creative approach to managing that relationship will not harm business. There has been a perceptible shift in attitudes that, if harnessed properly, should afford women greater freedom, rather than a return to the stereotypes of old.
As we celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day – and commit to calling out bias – let’s ensure that we carry forward the progress made against the backdrop of enforced lockdowns, while also protecting against the damage it brings with it. Early research should be treated as a warning shot rather than as a sign of things to come. The pandemic need not spell disaster for women, but we must engage our families, colleagues and employers in discussions about putting flexibility first – and we must engage them now. I urge you to choose to challenge for the benefit of all in society.
Access ICAS resources on returnship programmes here.