A new “blueprint for change” for women working in London has been published. Drawing on an array of recent studies and, importantly, on conversations with women, interviews and questionnaires, it takes the form of a report, entitled Un_Biased, which makes recommendations for removing barriers to women finding employment in the first place and for helping them to prosper once they’ve done so. These, of course, are familiar issues. Why the fresh look at them and why now?
The research gathered in Un_Biased – research which is still very much ongoing – has been published by Central District Alliance (CDA), the business improvement district for Holborn, Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury, St Giles and Farringdon, in the context of London’s economy’s continuing struggles with inflation, national government dysfunction, the debilitations of Brexit and the enduring impacts of the pandemic.
CDA’s chief executive Debbie Akehurst (main picture, right), for whom Un_Biased is a passion project, stresses in particular that the impacts of Covid-19 and its still-unfolding aftermath “have really highlighted all those inequalities we all know are still there”.
Office for National Statistics, House of Commons Library and McKinsey studies among others reviewed in Un_Biased have shown that, as Akehurst puts it, “women, along with younger people, were the most affected by Covid” where work is concerned, with sectors where female employees predominate, notably hospitality, “the hardest hit”. As a result, “women’s redundancies and job losses outpaced men’s in 2020,” Akehurst says. The report tells us that, following “an unprecedented two years of being lower”, the female unemployment rate in London is again higher than that of men, and that in 2021 female employees in London were being paid 16 per cent per hour less than men.
All his has occurred in a context in which, as Akehurst writes in her Foreword to Un_Biased, “We know that inclusive workforces perform better”. Hence CDA’s mission to revisit the disadvantages women so often face at all levels as workers because of their sex, to re-assert the need and the value of removing those disadvantages, and to define practical steps for doing so – in particular for CDA’s membership in a part of London containing over 17,000 businesses, most of them small or “micro”.
The report notes that much previous research in this area has been directed towards what central and local government can do through policy interventions, but that Un_Biased is “uniquely focused on the role businesses can play” in the central London context.
Compiled over an eight-month period in partnership with consultancy PRD and with support from London Communications Agency, it centres on three broad categories of barriers to women getting the most out of their working lives: pathways to employment; progression in work; and concerns about public space of various kinds.
The findings in the first category relating to young women are very striking, with 48 per cent of those responding to a survey saying they had received poor careers advice, 42 per cent believing recruitment processes were tilted against them, and 30 per cent feeling that their job opportunities were limited.
The report highlights many fewer girls than boys considering embarking on careers in science, technology, engineering or maths, despite the “gender gap” between attainment of the relevant academic qualifications narrowing. The stubbornness of self-reinforcing factors, such as cultural expectations and lack of self-confidence among young females, are cited – a situation not helped by careers guidance that can perpetuate stereotypes. Female interns are significantly less likely to be paid in those roles than male counterparts are.
In terms of career progression, Un_Biased emphasises that both formal and informal factors are at play. More than half (55 per cent) of the women who responded to the survey said they believed a “lack of clear standards for promotion” had impeded them, and nearly half (46 per cent) felt that “social cloning” – people already in positions of power championing others much like themselves – had held them back. Exactly half also complained about a “lack of clear standards for pay”.
The report says procedures for assigning promotions are often “subjective”, especially in smaller organisations, “and can be unfairly informed by an ability to work long hours or connect and build personal relationships with senior management”. This feels a lot like the phenomenon of “presenteeism” at both the workplace itself and in the pub after hours being key to advancement, pushing women to the margins and down the pecking order – a situation often and typically exacerbated by women being more likely to want and need to combine and reconcile career and family responsibilities.
The arguments of Un_Biased are reinforced by telling anecdotes, such as one woman’s story of working for a much-admired female boss who “made it clear not to talk about your home life at work; not to risk being pidgeonholed as a wife or mum”. In hindsight, the advice felt wrong – “You can’t switch off from who you are. The values I have as a mother are reflected in the values I have at work” – but, the world being as it is, there was no denying a certain logic behind it.
The costs and complexities of childcare in particular, along with the demands of other forms of care-giving, are explored as a major concern. Childcare’s high costs in London have long been an under-publicised component of the capital’s overall high cost of living. “If you’re ending up paying out 75 per cent of your salary in childcare, is it actually worth you going to work?’ Akehurst asks.
The measures announced by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt in his spring budget have been criticised by some as too little and much too slow. Akehurst says that, at present, “the provision isn’t there” either. CDA is starting to speak to businesses within its footprint about the possibility of providing childcare on site.
Accelerated by Covid, working from home and hybrid working have become larger factors in the work-life balance equation, though Un_Biased stresses that this is but one dimension of many women’s wish for greater flexibility about how they fulfil their work commitments.
Going part-time, job-sharing or simply having more elasticity to the shifts they work are also options they would like more of. The lack of these can be galling, especially if an employer is embracing other, perhaps more far-reaching forms, of organisational change. “Our firm is now outsourcing secretarial work to South Africa,” observed one woman who took part in a CDA coffee shop drop-in session. “Yet I’m not allowed to work from home occasionally.”
Opinion in the business world still seems divided or in flux about encouraging a return to the office, although three or four days in and two or one at home is pretty typical at the moment. The decision by HSBC to relocate within London to smaller premises – from Canary Wharf to the City, adjacent to St Paul’s – has been taken as reflecting an acceptance by the banking giant that greater amounts of working from home are here to stay.
The bottom line is about maximising productivity. The debate is about now best to achieve that. The latest Transport for London figures confirm the evidence of Debbie Akehurst’s own eyes that a gradual return to the office seems underway. Yet she adds that on her now usual one day per week working from home “I get so much done – and I’m not doing a four-hour commute”.
The Un_Biased report also contains important findings and recommendations about public spaces, be they streets, parks and squares or public transport modes, being made safe and inclusive for women. These cover everything from street security patrols and lighting to the provision of retail and leisure amenities that accommodate women’s particular needs. A list of four major reasons why change is needed includes an insufficient appreciation of the impact of menopause symptoms, the stigma that still surrounds them, and the value of large employers producing action plans to help women adjust to them, in line with recent research by the Fawcett Society.
CDA hopes its blueprint for change will make the area whose businesses it represents a beacon for “a fairer and more productive economy that can be adopted across London and potentially further afield”. And it’s putting its weight behind other organisations working towards the same goals.
For example, it has found a new client services base for the charity Dress for Success, which helps women to prepare for engaging with the job market, from interview training to attire. The formal opening of the space, conducted by Mayor of Camden Nazma Rahman (pictured with Debbie Akehurst), was also attended by executive director Fionnuala Shannon and some impressive volunteers with deep experience of helping both young adult and older women find their feet and stand their ground in work environments they might otherwise feel out of their depths in.
“I’m passionate about employment and local people having access to it,” Akehurst says. “Un-Biased is not a report that’s going to sit on a shelf. It is on our desks, its priorities are our foremost, and we will be delivering on them”.