Understanding Society

Mind the Gender Gap: From rhetoric to reality

In 2018, we celebrated 100 years of women’s suffrage in the UK. While the centenary milestone was celebrated, the media has been dominated by stories of gender inequality both in and outside of the workplace. Artificial barriers are preventing women from progressing in their work lives, and we know from Ipsos research that equal pay is a key concern for women in the UK. The government has recently taken steps to address this through requiring reporting on equal pay, and social movements such as #pressforprogress may be having an effect too. But is this enough to smash the glass ceiling? 

In this year’s annual Captains of Industry survey, Ipsos spoke to 100 of the top business leaders in the UK about their views on diversity in the boardroom.

Women and diversity in the boardroom

Considering the focus in the media, the increase in Captains saying that they actively promote and champion diversity and inclusion in their companies seems unsurprising. Over nine in ten Captains now say that they agree with this statement, with 65% stating that they strongly agree, up from 44% in 2016. Three in four Captains (77%) agree that they are actively trying to increase the number of women on their main board, reflecting commitment to gender diversity and the heightened profile of gender equality. The number that strongly agree has also nearly doubled since 2016.

However, the number that are actively trying to increase the representation of ethnic minorities is far lower, with just half of Captains agreeing. What is most remarkable about this finding is that this means the nine in ten Captains who say they are actively promoting and championing diversity and inclusion in their companies may only be doing this because of the heightened rhetoric around women and gender equality, potentially as a result of #MeToo movements and initiatives such as the gender pay gap reporting. 

The 9 in 10 Captains of Industry who say they are actively promoting and championing diversity and inclusion in their companies may only be doing this because of the heightened rhetoric around women and gender equality

Equal pay and the gender pay gap reporting

As our research for International Women’s Day shows, equal pay is the most important issue facing women in Britain, with 29% of people citing it as an issue4 . But nearly half (48%) of Captains say that they have not taken any action as a result of the reporting requirement aside from reporting it. While rhetoric may be improving, there is less evidence of real change at the top.

Of the 9,961 companies that filed by the deadline of 4th April, the hourly median gender pay gap reported is 9.6% – no significant improvement from 9.7% last year5 . Additionally, over four in ten private companies that have published their latest gender pay gap are reporting wider gaps than they did last year. One challenge facing employers is the fact that some measures designed to lower the gender pay gap in the long term could increase the gap in the short term – such as hiring more young women. According to the CBI, 24% report they are placing a greater focus on improving gender diversity in entry-level recruitment.

Are we making progress?

To take stock, last year, research shows that there were more people called Dave leading FTSE 100 companies than there were women or people from ethnic minority group. There were nine called Dave, five from a minority ethnic background and six female chief executives of FTSE 100 companies. Of these six women, five were appointed in the last five years. 

Optimistic perceptions of reality and potential for progress have a complicated relationship. We need to think that things have got better to believe that we can further improve them. But we cannot let optimism make us complacent. The general public’s perceptions of women in business leadership and equal pay may, therefore, be a double-edged sword. However, the reality is that women in the workplace and the boardroom have not seen much of an improvement, and we have even further to go to address gaps in ethnic diversity. To ensure women succeed, business leaders need to take a critical look at what is impacting progression and performance of women in the workplace, including burdens from outside the workplace. Hopefully, bosses’ apparent commitment to boardroom diversity is a sign of
better things to come.

Katherine Shipton
Ipsos MORI