The issue of the gender gap, particularly in the workplace, has long been a topic of debate. Despite significant advances in gender equality over the past few decades, men and women are still not being treated equally in terms of their experiences at work, including pay and career progression.
However, our latest research – which sought to analyse the experiences of over 1,000 working women and mothers in the UK – demonstrated that some sectors are definitely better than others when it comes to progressing and supporting female talent.
Accountancy rated best for working women while engineering and advertising fall behind
Accountancy was rated particularly highly as it was one of only a few industries to score consistently well. Nearly all female accountants (94%) said their employer is supportive of women – more than any other sector – and women in this sector are also more positive about their employer’s ability to retain female talent. A third of women in accountancy described their employer as excellent, compared to an average of one in five.
Education was also rated highly, particularly from the viewpoint of working mothers. This sector was rated best for accepting work/life balance and overall attitude to working mothers. Lawyers were most positive about their employer's support of working mothers, with 29% describing it as excellent compared to an average of 14%. Career progression and opportunities for working mothers were also rated best by the legal sector.
This is in stark contrast to sectors such as manufacturing and engineering – perhaps unsurprisingly given the male-dominated environment – and advertising, which received relatively low scores. Women working in these sectors were far more likely to say that their gender had hindered their career progress. They also rated their employers as less supportive of working women in general.
Discrimination was also a big sticking point: women in advertising and media were most likely to have experienced prejudice or discrimination at work because of their gender, with 51% indicating they had been through this at some point. Even those sectors that ranked particularly well, such as accountancy, were also plagued with problems regarding prejudice: overall 36% of women have experienced this at work.
Why does this divide exist?
Part of the reason behind the differences sector by sector could simply come down to attitudes towards women in certain sectors. After investing heavily in female employees, accountancy firms have quickly seen the value in retaining female staff and encourage their progression through support programmes specifically geared towards this. The stark reality is that they cannot afford to lose the female talent they have invested in, and the same goes for those in the legal sector.
Old prejudices will be ingrained in some sectors such as manufacturing or engineering that were traditionally viewed as male, either consciously or unconsciously. Sectors which do not attract a high proportion of women should ask themselves why this might be, and what they could do to encourage more women to lend their talent and skills to the industry.
How can the overall picture for working women improve?
No industry is perfect – as evidenced by the high incidence of prejudice in even the best rated sectors – but active steps can be taken to improve the support offered to women at work.
There is an obvious disconnect between how women rate their employer in terms of their support and their actual everyday experiences, and this can be countered by promoting a culture of transparency. Many women will fear criticising policies within their organisation as they worry that upsetting a senior (and frequently male) power base will have a negative impact on their career progress, rather than furthering it. Creating an environment where staff feel comfortable reporting barriers to their career is crucial in bringing these issues to light and therefore being able to work towards a solution.
There are also practical solutions, such as coaching, which can prove hugely beneficial in arming working women with the skills and confidence they need to succeed, regardless of the policies in place at their organisation. This has a positive influence on the talent pipeline, providing role models for younger members of staff who will then go on to better their own careers as a result.
Coaching managers as well as general staff allows positive attitudes towards women to filtrate throug an organisation and also gives them the skills to implement effective changes, making a significant impact on how their company supports female talent.
Taking active steps to improve the industry for women – a case study in advertising
Grey London, a leading creative advertising agency, is one company in the sector that seeks to change the image and attitudes within the industry. They have launched ‘Grey Mummies’, a support programme that includes coaching, which takes place during and after maternity leave, with the aim of retaining and supporting female talent and helping them to progress.
Nicole Wardell, managing partner at Grey London, explains: "Grey London has realised that we, and the advertising industry as a whole, need to get better at looking after our working mums. Motherhood should not be seen as a roadblock to future progression – but in an industry that is legendary for its long hours, networking dependant and wonderfully sociable, there is inevitably a conflict. This is why we have launched Grey Mummies, and it's been fabulous, as a working mum myself, to see such buy-in for this programme at the very highest level of our organisation."
Grey London attributes the success of the programme to their overall working culture, dubbed OPEN, which turns rigid hierarchical structures on their head and essentially liberates staff, giving them the freedom to succeed. In an OPEN culture, an employee can call out its organisation for not being good at something, come up with a solution and get it launched within weeks.
This cultural change perfectly sums up the kind of working environment that industries need to promote if they are to see any real improvement in their support for women. Failure to recognise this, or invest more in female talent, will leave many industries trailing behind in what is an increasingly competitive economy.