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Data is key to tackling sexism in the workplace and beyond

Companies should make a greater effort to include data on gender inequality in sustainability reports. Image from

Violence against women, rape, bungling of rape cases, sexism at work and in leadership are prominent topics in news headlines. Such crimes and injustices are borne out of cultures that tolerate them. Poor cultures in the workplace reflect and influence attitudes and behaviours more broadly in society.

Organisations are obliged to ensure equal opportunities and the starting point for doing something about inequity is revealing it – making it visible through data.

Data can make visible the extent of the problem and exactly where it lies. Information on the proportion of women at different levels of the organisation and on governance and senior committees and quantification the gender pay gap are standard disclosures included in the Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) G4 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. In some countries, such data has to be made publicly available by law, but it is often not widely communicated or in a way which allows problem areas to be identified. It should be tabled at appropriate meetings, compared across business units and with previous years and benchmarked with other similar organisations where possible.

Such data allows employees, government agencies, unions and other stakeholders to hold organisations to account. It also provides organisations the opportunity to demonstrate that they are being proactive and providing equal opportunities.

I’ve spoken at women’s events where participants who have experienced discrimination have felt isolated and helpless. They have not been aware of the extent of it or of any activity to address it. I have seen well-intentioned men — shocked by such data — become defensive. It can be confronting. But once there is realisation and acceptance that something needs to be done, action can be taken.

CEDA’s recently published Women in Leadership: Understanding the Gender Gap contains a number of recommendations. Embedding Gender in Sustainability Reporting a joint project of the GRI and the International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group, was developed through extensive stakeholder consultation and with the guidance of an Advisory Group (on which I served). It provides examples of information that organisations can provide on performance as well as ways to improve it.

The failure to attract and retain good women can be as much to do with process, institutional issues and culture rather than the manager who is doing the hiring. These quotes from corporate annual reports of the 1950s and 1960s demonstrate how societal norms have contributed to the social and economic disadvantage of women, and how companies have perpetuated them despite the clear economic disadvantage to the company in doing so. It was a time when men were explicitly appointed to manage and women to serve; a time when women were required to leave jobs upon marriage.

“It is now more important than ever that our younger men should be given every opportunity to develop fully their abilities and personalities. The proportion of men to total staff continues to decline and in consequence a greater proportion of male staff will be required to fill an increasing number of managerial and executive positions. The opportunities for our younger men are greater than they have ever been, and promotion will tend to come at an earlier age.” National Provincial Bank, 1956 corporate annual report

“We have opened a number of new branches during the year, including one in the West End of London under the management of a member of our women staff, Miss E. M. Harding. This interesting experiment has been hailed in some quarters as a portent, as indeed in a sense it is, but it may also be regarded as a natural and perhaps somewhat belated recognition that the holding of responsible posts in contact with our customers is no longer necessarily an exclusively male preserve.” Barclays Bank, 1958 corporate annual report

“The NP struck a blow for female equality in October last year with a new pay and promotion deal which enabled women staff members to take their place for the first time alongside men as branch managers…” National Provincial Bank, 1967 corporate annual

“…we also appointed… Miss P. Downs, who is personnel controller in charge of our female staff. We … congratulate Miss Downs in particular on being the first woman in our business to have attained top management level. For a business whose customers are predominantly women this seems a most logical step.” British Home Stores, 1968 corporate annual report*

It is obvious that such practises did not make business sense. Yet some 50 years on, the existence of a gender pay gap for new graduates is inexplicable, and in this context it should be no surprise to find pregnant women experiencing unacceptable discrimination.

CEDA’s Women in Leadership: Understanding the Gender Gap found that the association of leadership with male paradigms is a barrier to the appointment of women leaders. Indeed, senior managers often don’t see value in attributes they don’t have. This is a significant issue when women’s leadership styles have been found to differ from those dominant amongst men, who fill the majority of senior positions.

Why it matters

The obvious benefit of being an equal opportunity employer is that you have access to the best staff. But the risks of not providing equal opportunities for women and men go beyond losing out on talent. Dissatisfied, even frustrated and angry workers are not productive workers and poor equal opportunities practices and workplace cultures bring reputational and financial risk, particularly where legal action is taken. This is bad for business, yet it is too often tolerated — even tacitly encouraged — to maintain the status quo in power balance. Diversity in gender and skills matters to providers of capital. It should matter to boards both in terms of ability to achieve strategy and to manage risks.

Ultimately for companies, poor equal opportunities practice affects the bottom line. The costs to individuals affected by workplace discrimination, bullying and undermining are significant. The impacts are economic, psychological, social and emotional.

Too many women have experienced male violence outside work and discrimination at work. Those experiencing domestic violence and rape are too often not taken seriously by authorities. These survivors are strong people who are entitled to be treated fairly and with respect at work.

We don’t have a complete picture of what goes on in the lives of colleagues and employees outside the work place. Improving equality in work practises will change our society and the way women and men experience life more broadly.

Employers have an ethical as well as a legal responsibility to ensure fair treatment at work. Workers and trade unions have a responsibility to hold them to account. This goes for discrimination on the grounds of race, age, disability and sexual orientation too.

*Note: The quotes from corporate annual reports are a sample of those collected for Adams CA and Harte GF (1998). The Changing portrayal of the employment of women in British banks’ and retail companies’ corporate annual reports,Accounting, Organizations and Society 23(8): 781–812.

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