Workplace gender divide: how can employers help?

Anne Mannix & Bryony Irvine & Justin Murray
8 April 2021

It’s been over 45 years since the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act were introduced to address gender inequality, but have they done enough? All discrimination law has now been consolidated in the Equality Act 2010, and as an act it reads quite impressively. Later regulations require employers with over 250 employees to release reports on the gender pay gap in their organisation (and some employers with less than 250 employees release this voluntarily); but what are the results? – These reports, when submitted on time, and often they are not, often show a persistent gender divide in remuneration. Combine this with a 2016 survey conducted by YouGov which suggests 52% of women have experienced sexual harassment at work and one can see that there are still widespread gender issues in the workplace, ranging from discriminatory practices to clear harassment.

So, what can employers do to bridge this divide?

Put in place policies and training.

Some things, in fact many things ought to be obvious (for example, addressing obviously discriminatory comments or not deliberately promoting only male employees). But there are other acts that seriously affect individuals that can happen because of out-dated views and perceptions. These can be addressed, and situations can be avoided; but how?

As a matter of good practice, employers should have policies on and provide training for avoiding and dealing with sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and equality in all its forms. Employers could go further when addressing the gender inequalities, for example, by introducing unconscious bias training.

This is a specific type of training aimed at addressing bias arising from the tendency to view others differently if they are not from one’s own social group background. Bias (whether conscious or not) can affect all stages of employment – from recruitment to promotions, to deciding who is made redundant. Training aimed at tackling unconscious bias could benefit employers in providing a more harmonious work environment and a workplace that is more meritocratic.

Outside the management structure, unconscious bias based on things such as race, gender, disability or sexuality can affect how employees interact; the bias is not a deliberate or malicious act, merely something which has been ingrained in people based on the lives they have lived. So, making employers and employees more conscious of the biases they inadvertently could have, can help them to reassess situations by asking, “if they weren’t X [e.g., a woman] would I have done the same thing?”

Listen to employees.

“One mouth, two ears: use them in that proportion”. Truer words were never spoken. Employees are normally in a good position to explain the imbalances they see affecting them if they are given the chance and the platform to express it. Encouraging open dialogue could take the form of regular drop-in sessions or meetings to discuss what issues employees face – not limited to gender inequalities within the workplace –there may be concerns over other divides or problems they face, for example racism.

The precursor to open conversations in the workplace is having a staff member as a point of contact, ideally someone approachable. Larger organisations can filter concerns through a designated HR member; however, smaller employers can also take steps to start the conversation, perhaps through a senior employee who can liaise with directors. Both large and small employers could make use of mental health first aiders to facilitate the conversation. Mental health first aiders are employees who receive training to recognise and deal with mental health issues in the workplace. They can act as a first point of contact for employees experiencing mental distress. Mental health first aiders should generally be staff members who are trusted, approachable and encouraging; they may be appropriate points of contact to discuss inequalities in the workplace and act as conduits to express these issues to employers.

Be inclusive.

From lunch time social meetings to afterwork drinks, women are sometimes left off the list. In all likelihood forgetting to include them in the invitations is not done maliciously. But the effect is women cannot participate to the same extent. Employers should make a real effort to ensure women are included wherever possible and employees should be encouraged to ask: “if she weren’t a woman, would I have invited her?”

Employers should be wary of social groups forming which are excluding women. By not being invited to traditionally male social events e.g., to play the football at the pub after work, – women don’t get to hear about and participate in work related activities, such as a big project going on elsewhere in the company. It’s very simple to say that social activities are separate from the workplace but often this is not the case and employers should recognise this and try to encourage inclusivity so that stereo-typical assumptions are not made.

Whether to include in work/social events those staff members on parental leave can be a conundrum – but it should not be automatically assumed they don’t want to participate or will be too busy; it is relatively simple to ask a person on parental leave if they would like to join an event and they can say no if they like!

Analysis in 2016 by the Office for National Statistics suggested that women do 10 more hours a week of unpaid household work (which includes things such as cleaning and childcare) than their male counterparts. Employers can take these disparities into account when scheduling events so that those women adversely affected will be more able to attend. For example, when organising a team meal, instead of choosing an evening meal where some women may struggle to attend due to childcare responsibilities, consider a team lunch or even a team breakfast. The goal of team building, and socialising would still be achieved but those who would not normally be able to attend, would have a better chance.

Fostering allyship.

There are likely occasions in the workplace where some women feel uncomfortable, for example overhearing sexist jokes or banter and women often feel that they are in a position to ‘call out’ this kind of behaviour for fear of drawing attention to themselves. This is where male employees may really be able to make a difference. The idea of male ‘allyship’ has a growing following, including by some high-profile people and celebrities. The concept is that men take the time to try and understand just why women feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and to take steps to tackle such issues. Employers can encourage this by exposing the kinds of uncomfortable issues many women face in the workplace and encouraging men to advocate for women when they see these issues arising. An example of this is drawing to employees’ attention certain phrases which cause some employees discomfort and explaining why these are upsetting. Thus, by highlighting such issues, employees have the knowledge to spot these phrases in the workplace and may gently have a word informally with any person still using them. This goes two ways and female employees should do the same concerning comments which are upsetting or degrading to their male counterparts; examples include the stereotyping of the man as the secondary parent, which is not always the case and some men may find this assumption and accompanying comments offensive or upsetting.

Anecdotally, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the added pressure that many women face in relation to the added responsibilities and unpaid work they undertake. Working from home means that one partner has had the opportunity to witness the demands of childcare duties or cleaning responsibilities that their partner has been doing. How the workplace will look post-Covid-19 pandemic is unclear, but however it looks, returning employees may have a better understanding of what their colleagues of the opposite gender contend with at home and how simple changes (such as the timing of meetings) can make a real difference.

Proving flexible working.

Again, the Covid-19 pandemic has acted as somewhat of a large-scale social experiment. Many people who had previously been working in an office are now working from home. Anecdotally, some employers had been nervous about allowing employees to work from home, for example out of a fear of decreased productivity. However, many employees have been working from home for the best part of a year and there is little evidence to suggest that productivity has been affected.

Working from home is not an all-encompassing solution for gender inequalities in the workplace but should be considered. The absence of a commute saves valuable time for those who undertake household and childcare responsibilities, and the majority are women. With this in mind, introducing more flexible working arrangements, for all employees, may provide employees with better balance in their life which promotes a happier, more stable workforce.

That being said, working from home full-time has its own unique issues – there are suggestions that it has adversely affected employees’ mental health. However, this should be considered in conjunction with the situation of the Covid-19 pandemic which has made some feel isolated and fearful, so these adverse effects may not solely be attributed to the fact of working from home.

The answer is to properly and truly follow the legislation by thoroughly giving every request for flexible working due and proper consideration – again, no matter who is requesting it.

Employers can ask.

Start small, ask your employees “what can we do to make it better for you?” Employees are close to the workplace issues they face, and many would be able to explain these problems to their employers. So, if an employer wants to know the issues affecting their employees, they can ask them.

This applies beyond gender inequalities in the workplace and may allow employees to bring their issues to the fore. For larger employers, this could be started with anonymised questionnaires produced and circulated by HR personnel to allow employers to see what the biggest problems are and what employees feel could be done better. From there, management can work with employees to ensure these issues are discussed and dealt with. Smaller employers may face more of a challenge when it comes to this type of initiative, but they could still achieve results, for example they could appoint a senior employee to talk to employees about their experiences in the workplace and ask if there is anything they could do better. The important thing for employer, regardless of size, is that engaging employees is not treated as a tick-box exercise but is something which is done with the intention of listening and learning.


Changes to gender inequalities in the workplace are not something that will happen overnight and there is no quick fix. But employers who are willing to listen and adopt some of the things listed above can facilitate change. Overall, small but consistent changes may create meaningful changes and help employers to ensure that they have a workplace which retains top talent, regardless of gender.

Anne Mannix
Partner - Employment
Anne Mannix is a Partner Solicitor at Spencer West. She specialises in employment law, partnership law, business protection and the employment aspects of corporate deals, restructuring and redundancy.
Bryony Irvine
Solicitor – Employment / Private Client
Bryony Irvine is a Solicitor at Spencer West. She has currently completed her Legal Practice Course (LLM) at BPP. Her previous work includes working as a paralegal in funds management.
Justin Murray
Partner – City Disputes: Contentious Employment and Commercial Dispute Resolution
Justin Murray is a Partner Solicitor at Spencer West. He specialises in City Disputes: Contentious Employment and Commercial Dispute Resolution.