Graphic: The £3.4bn cost of Norfolk and Suffolk’s workplace inequality

AMANDA NUNN, is the new assistant director for the CBI in the East of England.

AMANDA NUNN, is the new assistant director for the CBI in the East of England. - Credit: Archant

Women continue to face multiple challenges in the workplace, but are conditions improving? Business writer Ben Woods investigates the forecast across the region – and beyond.

Rebecca Lewis Smith, managing director of the Fountain Partnership

Rebecca Lewis Smith, managing director of the Fountain Partnership - Credit: Archant

For many, it can centre around a seemingly unpalatable choice between leading a successful full-time career, or staying at home to raise a family.

Erika Clegg, founder of Spring design agency.

Erika Clegg, founder of Spring design agency. - Credit: Archant

And while this conundrum can make life difficult enough, there is the fear of having one's career progression blocked by the 'glass ceiling' and the continuing trend of the white male-dominated boardroom.

INFOGRAPHIC: Women in the workplace

Women's enterprise support group WEETU shuts down

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But staggeringly research by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership suggests that righting the wrongs of gender inequality could bring a £3.4bn boost to the economy in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Meanwhile, across the east, these challenges have recently been underscored by the closure of the Women's Employment, Enterprise and Training Unit (WEETU), which helped hundreds of women into work.

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All of which portrays a bleak outlook for women in the workplace, but recent reports suggest the picture is more of a mixture of light and shade.

A women in the labour market survey by the Office for National Statistics revealed that the UK was above the EU average for employing women in senior management roles (35pc compared to EU 33pc), but in the same report, it also showed that women only held 33pc of management and senior official positions.

And although the number of women in top management positions doubled in the UK last year, this only accounted for an eighth of the roles held within the City, research by recruitment firm Astbury Marsden found.

For Amanda Nunn, assistant director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in the East of England, there are signs that big business is trying to improve the conditions for women at a boardroom level.

But she has disregarded the need for a quota system to improve the gender demographic, and instead called for women to assert themselves more in the workplace.

'During a panel discussion at the CBI annual conference this week, one person asked whether there should be quotas for the number of women in senior-level positions,' she said. 'It shows people are working hard to have women represented on boards, but it should also be about ensuring that person has the right talent, and is right for the job.

'Sometimes women are not as good at putting themselves forward as their male counterparts. Women can downplay their skills, while men are proactive at selling themselves for a role. It can be a confidence issue, but employers need to provide the right conditions for women to thrive in.'

While the 'glass-ceiling' – the invisible barrier blocking a woman's progression in an organisation– continues to remain a concern for high-flying ambitious women, the challenges facing part-time women workers are just as pertinent.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the fall-out of the recession, and the need to have greater flexibility over working patterns, has sparked surge of female entrepreneurs who have seen the quality of their jobs decline by going part-time.

In fact, the number of self-employed women rose by 14pc between June and August this year from 552,000 to 629,000, ONS figures stated.

Rebecca Lewis Smith, managing director of internet marketing service provider Fountain Partnership, said self-employment is becoming a better option for women with family commitments.

She said: 'Whereas self-employment used to be a 'risky' option compared to a salaried job, I think it has become a more viable option for a lot of people at a time when traditional employment seems to be less and less secure. So the increase in self-employment among women could well be an entrepreneurial reaction to the job market in the wake of the recession. It's also a far more flexible way of earning if you need to work around family commitments, and with the phenomenal access to information that is available to anyone who can get online, self-employment becomes more achievable.'

So how is the region performing when it comes to serving the needs of women in the workplace?

According to ONS figures, the East of England boasted the highest employment rates in the country from July last year to June this year, with 70pc of women aged 16 to 64 currently in work.

But drill down further into this local data, and the significant inequalities between men and women can still be found.

There is currently a 15pc gap in Norfolk between the amount men and women are paid for full-time work, while in Suffolk the difference is even greater at 19pc.

And this comes despite evidence that women across East Anglia are better qualified, with 52.74pc of degrees held by women, compared to 47.2pc of degrees held by men.

According to local policymakers, these figures point to not just an economic inequality within our business networks, but a significant brain drain on the local economy if women decided to work part-time.

And the impact financially is even greater. An investigation by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, in conjunction with the University of East Anglia and University College Suffolk, estimates that if this gender pay gap was addressed, and more women returned to full-time work, it would be worth as much as £3.4bn to East Anglia's economy.

Erika Clegg, board member for New Anglia LEP and founder of Southwold-based Spring design agency, said the need to address these issues is even in the interest of the government – because it would generate more tax.

She said: 'There is a profligate waste of skills dropping out of the workforce along the career pipeline. The talents that leave have a serious impact on the quality and productivity of businesses across the region.

'Skills drive reputation and growth, allowing companies to flourish and meaning that opportunity for women need not cannibalise opportunity for men, but will in fact create opportunity for both sexes to prosper in growing businesses.

'If New Anglia LEP firms were able to address the pay gap existing within full-time work, it would represent £1,5bn more in gross annual income. And if half of our women in part time work had full-time jobs on an equal salary, that would rise by an additional £1.86bn. This clearly represents a significant additional tax income to government. The current situation sees the average woman in New Anglia LEP area pay £83,000 less in tax over her whole working life than the average man.'

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