Women often feel a responsibility to adjust their actions and behaviours to try and prevent misogyny in the workplace. However, this burden carries both personal and professional risks and can have the detrimental effect of limiting career progression and preventing women from reaching their full potential.
There is now an impetus on employers, emphasised by recent events in the news, to take wider action to consider the wellbeing and safety of women in the workforce.
The increase in case numbers does indicate that some employers are falling behind in their employment practices that protect the rights of women
From the #MeToo movement of 2018 to working mothers losing their jobs at far higher rates than fathers during the pandemic and the most recent headlines featuring shocking behaviour and comments from Parliament, misogyny appears inescapable in the everyday lives of women at work.
Over the past year, in the London employment team at JMW Solicitors, we have seen a notable prevalence of maternity and pregnancy related discrimination cases. There has been a recurring theme that women are feeling unsupported during pregnancies and on maternity leave, and we have seen several cases where women have returned to the workplace only to find their role has disappeared or realise they have been passed up for promotion in favour of a male colleague.
A high number of pregnancy and maternity discrimination claims were recorded by the Employment Tribunal between 2019 – 2020, which seems to suggest that female employees are feeling more empowered to call out wrongdoing. This being said, the increase in case numbers does indicate that some employers are falling behind in their employment practices that protect the rights of women.
We have also seen cases where female employees have raised concerns over there being ‘old boys’ clubs’ within their organisation. This has mainly been related to employers who have an inherent culture of men having a dominant influence within the workplace and using this to either intimidate or limit the opportunities that are available to women.
This type of culture can result in women feeling that they have no choice but to resign from their positions due to the lack of career progression and in some cases, pursue sex discrimination claims. Employment Tribunal litigation is an open process, businesses need to identify and eradicate this culture before it is too late.
Shifting the burden
Importantly, the focus needs to shift from women being responsible for resolving these problems to everyone firm-wide taking meaningful steps and engaging with initiatives to tackle sexism and misogyny. Male allyship is a crucial tool to achieving change, and all of the workforce should be committing to making a difference through language and behaviour, including calling others out to help make the workplace a safer environment.
Encouraging all staff, regardless of gender identity, to participate in the conversation is a critical element in trying to achieve gender equality
An example of this initiative being put into motion is Sadiq Khan’s recently launched campaign which is aimed at tackling misogyny and urges men to ‘have a word’ with themselves and those around them to prevent misogyny.
Encouraging all staff, regardless of gender identity, to participate in the conversation is a critical element in trying to achieve gender equality. Creating an equal workplace requires men to also take responsibility for change, be engaged as allies and challenge unfair beliefs, practices and structures that are in place and contribute to inequality.
Practical steps and measures to address misogyny
1. Rethink policies
Employers can help by having clear and carefully drafted company policies on required standards of behaviour for all gender identities. Consider employee handbooks and policies which can be implemented or improved upon to support women and aimed at tackling unfair treatment they may be facing.
Anti-harassment and bullying policies are important to set clear standards of behaviour and for promoting a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and bullying. Employers face liability if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent such behaviour from happening.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal recently emphasised the importance of having up to date anti-harassment and diversity policies and training that is genuinely fit for purpose, and this demonstrates the value to an employer in having up to date and legally compliant policies.
Investing in family friendly policies is another valuable tool to support women, who are still statistically the primary caregiver. Flexible working, enhanced/shared parental leave and additional childcare provisions are being more widely utilised by employees, but it does rely on employers promoting and encouraging the use of such working practices and leave so that women do not feel that they will be disadvantaged by doing so.
In addition to this, family friendly policies are linked to better workforce productivity and can help attract the best talent and motivate and retain employees.
2. Effectively deal with complaints
Importantly, when complaints are raised, employers must ensure these are taken seriously and all systems in place, such as grievance and disciplinary procedures, are properly followed. Ensuring that the appropriate staff have received the necessary training to handle complaints, as well as a consistent and reliable approach, will mean employees have faith in an employer’s ability to effectively and considerately deal with the issues raised.
3. Creating a safe and supportive environment
Empower your staff to feel comfortable and have the confidence to speak up, whether this involves raising issues to HR or having a dedicated support network within your business. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committees are a great forum for everyone to feel encouraged to vocalise their ideas for how to make workplaces more inclusive and raise any particular areas of concern.
By having an inclusive and diverse workforce that encourages equal opportunities for all gender identities, both employers and employees will feel the benefit
Effects on the workforce
Misogynistic and sexist behaviour can have detrimental effects on an employer, as women may feel they are held back from senior positions or are being challenged into stereotypically ‘feminine’ roles. This carries an inevitable risk of losing valuable female talent, in addition to damaging the employer’s reputation.
By proactively taking steps to create a better work environment for women, improvements in employees’ performance, sense of belonging, mental health and job satisfaction will inevitably follow. Essentially, by having an inclusive and diverse workforce that encourages equal opportunities for all gender identities, both employers and employees will feel the benefit.