Banner Default Image

People Management | What are the biggest challenges women face at work – and how can employers tackle them?

Women Image

Isabel Jackson Press Releases

​This article originally featured on People Management and is available here.

On International Women’s Day, experts warn of a workforce that ‘silently endures pain’ and the persisting motherhood pay penalty

Has women’s equality in the workplace been achieved? Most men seem to think so, with four in five (79 per cent) believing men and women are paid equally and just 11 per cent thinking they are paid more than women, according to new research by HiBob.

In addition, only 17 per cent of men think they are promoted more quickly or often than women, the survey of 2,000 employees found.

Statistics tell a different tale: the gender pay gap is currently at 14.3 per cent, meaning the average female employee effectively works unpaid for 52 days of the year, recent analysis by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) revealed.

A third (33 per cent) of women were not promoted in pay, benefits or position in 2023, compared to a quarter (25 per cent) of men, HiBob’s research found.

“Despite the heightened visibility that technological advancement and social media allow us, women today are still battling with sky-high expectations, unfair bias, disproportionate job losses and dispiriting barriers to advancement,” Amanda Day, senior director of people enablement at Remote, told People Management.

Katy Foster, director of people strategy at Cream HR, agreed, telling People Management: “Biases, subconscious or otherwise, still exist and processes and policies devised many years ago that have remained traditional can make the world of work very challenging for women.”

This International Women’s Day, People Management has spoken to experts about what persistent challenges women are facing in the workplace and what their priorities should be in tackling them.

Menopause remains unaccommodated

“Sadly, the misconception still exists that menopause is ‘a few years’ in a woman’s life, when in reality it can be a seven-14 year span,” Kelly Bond, brand experience manager at Elle Sera, told People Management.

Sera highlighted that employers often offer meaningless “work perks” for women, such as unlimited tea and coffee or monthly entertainment vouchers, rather than supporting women through the menopause or menstrual symptoms.

“Why wait until your employees are in the thick of brain fog, hot sweats, vaginal dryness, low libido and insomnia when you can help support and educate them in understanding hormonal changes ahead of time?” she said.

“They don’t want to be seen as having a disability, they don’t want a fuss, but they want awareness.”

Mandy Watson, director of Ambitions Personnel, told People Management: “Menopausal employees might feel more comfortable if they could work in cooler conditions, provided supplies like desk fans, and considered a relaxed dress code for roles that permit it.”

She also suggested that the impact of the menopause being misunderstood can go beyond physical wellbeing, as “menopausal employees are faced with discriminatory behaviours in the workplace or, sometimes, in the hiring process”.

Stigma surrounding menstruation

Debra Clark, head of wellbeing for Towergate Health and Protection, said that employers may be less aware of the need to support women through menstruation. 

She told People Management: “There is a lot of focus on menopause, created by high-profile celebrities raising awareness and a recent refreshed view on legislation. While this is great, women need support for the whole of their menstrual life.” 

Watson said that employees may be reluctant to take time off for period pain due to societal stigmas.

“The prevalent notion that ‘it can’t be that bad’ often leaves women feeling unsupported and hesitant to express their needs in the workplace. 

“This reluctance can also be fuelled by the fear of not being perceived as a reliable employee and missing out on progression opportunities. 

“The result is a workforce that silently endures pain, impacting their overall effectiveness.”

Clark added that support through menstruation can range from “having it as a reason for absence on the HR software” and having good access to toilets and sanitary products, to offering services people can call for advice and support or consultations. 

Daniella Pye, associate director at Sellick Partnership, told People Management that conversations around women’s health need to be “normalised” as menstruation and the menopause “are stigmatised and ignored, with many women avoiding conversations for fear that the problem will be trivialised”.

Lack of support for working mothers

On average, mothers earned 43 per cent less per week than fathers in 2023, new analysis by Pregnant then Screwed has found.

The ‘motherhood pay penalty’ is therefore equivalent to £4.44 per hour, according to the research. 

In addition, more than half (54 per cent) of women reported a negative impact on their career progression due to parenthood, compared to a third (33 per cent) of men, research by HiBob revealed.

Foster said that “lack of career progression for working mothers on maternity leave” is one of the biggest challenges facing women in the workplace, adding: “Women can often be seen as ‘flaky’, as they have time off and career breaks for their families.

“Gender stereotypes mean women are assumed or expected to be the caregiver, that mothers or carers are assumed to not want to progress, not care about their career anymore and are less interested and capable,” Emma Jarvis, founder of DearBump, told People Management.

Foster advised that employers “review policies and practices through the lens of a working mother”, suggesting they better promote Keeping In Touch days for employees on maternity leave and facilitate flexible working for mothers.

“Mothers may find they are unable to work during the school run hours but instead prefer to work before their children wake up or after they go to sleep,” Watson added.

Jarvis also pointed out that men are prevented from taking up paternity leave or sharing caring responsibilities as a result of “cultural norms”, leaving women with “less choice and less flexibility”. 

She said companies should improve parental leave and pay for men, “eliminating gender biases that assume women will become the primary caregiver and prevent men from sharing the parental leave”.

Pay and promotion gap

With the gender pay gap falling at an average of 0.7 percentage points per year for the past five years, it will take 20 years, or until 2044, for equal pay to be achieved, TUC calculations revealed. 

Furthermore, 50 per cent of men got higher wages, a salary increase or a bigger bonus in the last six months, compared to 43 per cent of women, according to a recent poll of 2,000 people by Randstad.

Another survey of the job market by CVwizard found that nearly half (45 per cent) of women feel they are underpaid for the work they do.

Day said that, by “making clear how all employees can progress within their roles, especially with your female employees,” employers can begin to combat this inequality.

“A transparent promotion process can make a significant difference in women’s career progression and help address gender leadership disparities,” she said, particularly referring to women who are working remotely. 

Jo Kansagra, head of people at Virgin Incentives and Virgin Experience Days, told People Management: “Businesses need to ensure that inclusion is at the front of their mind and that we are focusing on intersectionality and bridging the pay gap by considering the different economic realities experienced by women of colour as well.”

She said data “consistently” shows women of colour face the largest gender pay disparity, adding: “It’s vital to work from the bottom up and focus on inclusivity and gender equality across the board.”

However, Watson highlighted that, while the gender pay gap is often mentioned in conversations about equality, “topics that contribute to the pay gap aren’t always spoken about due to fear of embarrassment or shame”.

She said that addressing inequalities surrounding women’s health and maternity leave are essential to closing the pay gap.

“Initiating open conversations is crucial to raising awareness and encouraging employers to consider and rectify these disparities,” she said.