Gender equality at the workplace: where we stand and where we want to go

If we had to paint each month with a different colour, March would be purple. 

Purple embodies spirituality, creativity, dignity and royalty.  Internationally, it’s the colour that symbolises women. The choosing of this colour seems to have been inspired by the flag that the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)⁠—a UK women-only political movement—used to claim women’s rights, particularly the right to suffrage

Although the world has chosen one specific day—March 8—to acknowledge women’s achievements in different facets of life – socio-political, cultural and economic, the full month’s agenda is busy with public and private events in which women’s role in society takes the central stage. 

When tracking the history of the International Women’s Day (IWD), one flies back to 1911. That year saw Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland celebrating the first IWD but on 19 March. It was only in 1975 when the United Nations celebrated for first time the IWD and, two years later, in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights. 

Let’s travel forward in time until 2020. Luxembourg is one of the OECD countries making the most progress for women at work, according to PwC’s latest Women in Work Index.  This translates into boosting female employment rates, increasing women participation in boards and reducing the gender pay gap—which could boost female earnings across the OECD by US$2 trillion. 

What Luxembourg is achieving is remarkable. The Grand Duchy has jumped from the 23rd position in 2000 to fifth in 2020. The pay gap between women and men has reduced progressively until 3.9% (5.5%, according to the European Commission). 

We confess our attachment to statistics and indexes because of our domain of expertise. However, although numbers and statistics don’t lie, they don’t always tell the truth. They model and profile realities so we can understand them, explain them and make decisions, but they don’t read the subtle and intricate logic of human relations. Gender, because it has to do with our personal and social identity, is possibly one of the main determinants of our lives. 

Achieving equal opportunities for women and men goes beyond numbers and quotas to reach gender balance (or, at least, attempt to reach it). To remain, no matter the colour of the government, the values of business boards, or our parents’ beliefs, this longing of many has to take root in society, as the right to freedom did. And even then, in that ideal circumstance, there will always be detractors.

Are there some jobs more suitable for what we associate with masculinity—strength, courage, independence, leadership and assertiveness? Some weeks ago, the monthly meeting’s agenda of Women & Men@PwC—our local group that designs actions for a healthy work environment and encourages gender balance—suddenly changed. One of the male team members shared a comment he heard in a previous meeting. A colleague told him: “I thought we had already celebrated the IWD, didn’t we? I honestly don’t get all the noise around this subject. To work in finance, you need to be aggressive, don’t you think?”

Then, a roller coaster of emotions inundated the room, and a hectic discussion ensued. 

Comments like that aren’t uncommon in workplaces. They may not be heard when the audience is large or mixed, but they happen right behind the door, in small rooms or between male colleagues. Indexes don’t reveal the unsaid, and it’s precisely the unsaid, the silent comments made with the eyes, the subtle joke, the apparently distracted remark, which show that the path toward gender equality is still bouldered. 

In this article we’re making some confessions, willfully. The truth is sometimes uncomfortable and often hard to swallow, but only by acknowledging it can we correct wrongs. 

We’ve undeniably moved forward in pursuing not only equal opportunities for women and men but also in shaping a safe work environment for all, a place that invites our people to reimagine ways to do things and to answer our clients and society needs. However, our achievements are in peril if we don’t upgrade our efforts to recruit women, to retain female talent, to rethink and adapt our career development plans or to educate our people on diversity, gender equality and inclusion, more strategically than opportunistically (not only on March 8!) 

As a business, we take the responsibility of gender equality in the workplace but we also invite you, avid readers, and our stakeholders, to reflect on what it takes to achieve gender equality.  

The main obstacles for a more inclusive society have found safe shelter in our mind.

How is Luxembourg ranked in gender equality?

Let’s explore how our country is doing in terms of gender equality. 

With 69.2 out of 100 points, the Grand-duchy ranks 10th on the UE’s Gender Equality Index, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality. As a reference,  Luxembourg’s’ score is 1.8 points higher than the EU’s average. Recent research – the PwC’s Women in Work Index 2020 – gives Luxembourg a high score too, 73.5.

A dive into the metrics of Luxembourg’s Women in Work 2020 Index

Index score and rank: It’s a weighted average of five indicators that reflect women empowerment in the labour market and equality in the workplace: equality of earnings, employment accessibility, job security, share of employment and female unemployment.

Gender pay gap: It’s a measure of the percentage difference in the average remuneration for men and women. Closing the gender pay gap refers to how much (in percentage) women could earn if the gap closes (in terms of salary), and how much Luxembourg could positively impact the OECD economy with this gain.

Comparison with Sweden: According to PwC, the top two performing OECD countries remain the same as in 2019—Iceland and Sweden—for the fifth year in a row. Much like last year, the 2020 Index uses Sweden’s results as comparison as it’s a reasonably large economy and, therefore ,a more suitable comparator country for the OECD.

What are numbers hiding in the gender pay gap?

The numbers for Luxembourg look promising. Statistics prove the improvement of the country in terms of gender equality. However, one has to read between the lines. 

Is there any hidden pay gap? According to The EU Mutual Learning Programme in Gender Equality’s Equal Pay Paper, the Luxembourg pay gap “has been decreasing and it is relatively small, but when decomposed across sectors a different story is revealed”. For instance, in the financial and the insurance sectors and in wholesale and retail trade, the gap was about 22% in 2017. Eurostat’s Gender Pay Gap Statistics (2018) confirm this information. 

The above-mentioned Equal Pay Paper reveals that a majority of women (60%) work in the top paid sectors (Education, financial and insurance, information and communication, human health and social work activities), while a majority of men work in the worst paid sectors (accommodation, and food service, construction, wholesale and retail trade, administrative and support, remediation and water supply activities). 

Even though women tend to work in better paid professions, maybe because they are better qualified than men, their wages are lower in most sectors. For this gender pay gap to exist, one infers that “men are given more opportunities to find themselves in management positions, which are substantially better paid.”

Achieving true gender equality isn’t an objective near to be conquered. Challenges, as we just showed, are still very real. How can Luxembourg navigate the wide sea between 73.5  points of PwC’s Index and 100? 

Let’s review the current main issues of gender equality in business.

A look into main business challenges to gender equality 
  • Lack of female candidates in certain fields

A biased treatment, sometimes unconscious, is the base that sustains gender inequality throughout women’s professional journey. 

Decades of research have made one thing clear: gender biases are nearly always present in employment decisions, influencing assessments on who’s the best for the job. Gender stereotypes and biases are still very much attached to certain professions. This approach to work contributes to women under representation and gender inequality in the workplace.

The choosing between a man or a woman for certain positions triggers a series of events that can influence women’s professional lives. In the path to gender equality, it’s necessary to understand if recruitment decisions are arbitrarily made or if they are truly based on facts (skills and capabilities). Equally, dissecting how differently salary negotiations, career opportunities within the organisation and career encouragement happen for women and men, is a much required exercise. 

These facts, never stated but oftenly known (because they are embedded in a company or industry’s reputation) discourage women from aspiring to a career in consulting, assurance, science or technology, to name a few. As a result, the available pipeline of women seeking to build a career in these fields narrows down, and the barrier for them to enter and stay in certain sectors grows.

An internal exercise to assess where we stand in terms of gender equality has given us valuable information on recruitment and career development patterns and how they can influence our ultimate goal to achieve gender balance. 

The graphic above shows the women’s share of employment (%) throughout our Advisory practice’s career cycle. It compares the 2019’s situation in June and December. There’s a visible drop in women on senior levels, which suggests that women at management levels are and will continue to be underrepresented,  and that support for their career progression and work life balance choices might be something that needs to be revised in the near future.

  • Biases in employer branding

Nowadays, gender-biased working in job advertisements is considered discriminatory. However, recruiters are only human, and unconscious bias is linked to social and cultural backgrounds and our personal values and beliefs. 

Advertisements in male-dominated occupations and industries contain more masculine-stereotyped words such as “competitive” and “assertive’ than advertisements for jobs in female-dominated occupations. Research has shown that subtle wording in job advertisements can influence the choice of men and women into different occupations and sectors.

The risk of discouraging people to apply for job openings is high and it affects negatively a business competitive edge. On top of the impossibility to fill key positions, businesses can gain fame for not being gender-friendly. 

In this situation, women are more likely to rate particular job descriptions as unappealing or they drop their applications because their gender is under-represented in certain roles or sectors. While the use of such a biased language might not be deliberate or meant to exclude candidates, it reinforces gender-based social beliefs linked to job suitability. 

The same biases can occur in credential evaluations, in the application of selection criteria, in job interviews and salary negotiations. Women that show an apparent overly confident or assertive attitude are usually less “likeable” and are less likely to be chosen for a job because they don’t fit in a more traditional feminine stereotype, according to this article

  • The obstacles in career development for women

In recent years, there has been considerable progress in moving women into managerial positions. However, they still tend to aim for lower or middle levels in the hierarchy. There are a number of reasons to explain this tendency. 

Are you familiar with the term glass ceiling? It’s a metaphor that refers to an invisible but impenetrable barrier that not only prevents qualified women from achieving higher positions in organisations but also to earn the same compensations and benefits as men. Women can crash into the glass ceiling regardless of their qualifications, talent and success in their function.

Source: Eurostat – March 2019

This situation has negative consequences for the employer and the employees, especially women. Businesses are depriving themselves from a diverse talent pool that could bring considerable leadership and decision-making skills to the table, contributing to the organisation’s success. Female managers who realise that their career advancement is blocked likely grow frustrated and decide to seek better career opportunities elsewhere.

The Parental leave can, somehow, be linked to the glass ceiling metaphor. To most women, maternity is considered one of the happiest stages in their lives, but children arrive later and later. Increasingly, highly educated women wait until their 30s to have children, according to our survey

To some employers, maternity leaves aren’t precisely desirable. By the time women become mothers, they will have already invested time and resources to develop them. How to deal with that loss of talent and how to guarantee that, after resuming work, they will perform as well as they did before?, they wonder.

Often, women returning from maternity leave encounter an unfriendly work environment and are given with less challenging or ambitious responsibilities because, to some, their career is practically over and their focus has switched to their family life.  

Although businesses are working on more family-friendly solutions and many organisations now devote serious resources to support parental leave policies and flexible working conditions, this has not convinced everyone. 

According to our survey, 42% of women said they fear the career effects of having children, while 48%

of new mothers returning to work felt overlooked for promotions and special projects. In addition, 37% of new mothers didn’t take the full maternity/paternity leave they were permitted because of career pressure, feeling this would undermine their standing at work. 

Employers  and female employees face a lose-lose situation: highly skilled talent will leave and women will not fulfil their full potential that could contribute to the positive development of the business.

Four things businesses do to (really) ensure gender equality
  • Attracting women into the industry

Recruiting more women into the areas lacking female representation is vital both to challenge gender stereotypes and for the success and growth of the sect number of women on vacancy shortlists. This is, according to our own experience, demonstrably effective in improving female representation.

  • Developing the pipeline of female

Female role models and encouragement for girls and young women to develop their skills and aspire to careers in sectors where women are under numbered are crucial to developing the pipeline of female talent. 

We also suggest you to collaborate with educational institutions to promote and celebrate successful women, and to organise workshops that build women’s confidence to apply for sectors where female present is scarce. 

  • Providing opportunities for development 

For organisations to boost women careers, they must ensure that branding and job descriptions are gender-neutral and that recruitment teams are gender-balanced. 

They can also influence both the pipeline and progression of women by focusing on training and education. For instance, by implementing retraining programmes and embracing alternative hiring pathways to allow employees to move into different roles. 

Formal learning and development initiatives and other personalised actions – coaching, for instance – are particularly key to facilitating progression, especially for women who aspire to senior or managing positions. 

  • Fostering an inclusive workplace culture

Promoting inclusivity in the workplace is crucial to attracting, retaining and developing female talent. 

Organisations can implement, for instance, mentorship schemes to support career planning and host women’s networking groups and events to help organisations better understand the issues women face in the workplace and how they can be addressed. There’s also scope for cross-industry learning and the sharing of best practices. 

Two important initiatives that could also make the difference when creating a safe and inclusive work environment are the re-integration of women returning from parental leave and motivating young fathers to take parental leave too. This way, men have also the chance to take the role of caregiver, building stronger relations in the family context, while breaking role-based gender stereotypes.

Parenting is, most of the time, seen as a roadblock in one’s professional career especially for women, as we previously mentioned. However, implementing and motivating paternity leave could help address some gender imbalances which, in turn, may positively reduce prejudices around mothers returning to work. Young parents should be supported in their choice. Feeling that they are going to be judged or their professional careers and progression are at risk is what businesses aiming at gender equality should avoid. 

To demystify and tackle the fear and guilt that comes with making the choice between work and family, businesses might need to learn and understand that, an employee on maternity/parental leave isn’t a burden. These are individuals that usually return to work with new objectives, new ideas and renewed motivation to contribute for the business and its development. 

Confucius, the famous chinese philosopher, once wrote, “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” 

Gender equality in the workplace has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go. It started out with a movement, it was followed by scattered measures that some committed organisations decided to put in place and, finally, it became law, aiming at accelerating fairness at work and, ultimately, in the social system. 

For those who stand for gender equality the biggest challenge yet is to come: make the idea last through education, by teaching people that the world is a better place when all of us are treated equally in the family, in business or in the social sphere. 

Equal opportunities for women at work are for our young daughters too.

What we think
Sidonie Braun, Partner at PwC Luxembourg
Sidonie Braud, Partner at PwC Luxembourg

To many, parentality is still a blocker in women’s career, that’s an undeniable fact. No matter what you think or do, women will continue giving birth and they will have to stop working for a certain period of time. It’s, simply, a biological fact. 

We truly believe that encouraging daddys to exercise their right to parental leave and share the time off the office with their significant others will dramatically change our workplaces. The way we evaluate and promote people will get more equalised too. 

Standing for a better-balanced world isn’t only a women’s task. Men should stand up with us to change the way we have all grown up and how we’ve understood social roles since ages. We both have to challenge the sticky cultural biases we replicate time and time again. Even women fall into the trap of those biases!  

The world has changed. More and more single dads grow their children up at least 50% of their time. Yes, it’s up to you daddys to educate your children following a more balanced approach, in a way that lets girls dream of being what they want to be, in a way for boys to truly believe equality is  just normal!

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