This year, the campaign theme for International Women’s Day is #EmbraceEquity. This theme encourages people to acknowledge and understand that providing equal opportunities is not enough to achieve inclusivity. This is because equality-based solutions assume a level playing field––the same resources are allocated to all, disregarding the fact that those at a disadvantage will remain so. Instead, to achieve inclusivity, opportunities provided to women, particularly in the workforce, need to be based on the principle of equity. Equity-based solutions consider diversity by adapting and allocating resources according to need, which means a fairer work environment for all. Employers looking to ensure equity for women is incorporated into their DEI strategy should strive to not only identify the specific requirements of female employees but also look to ensure the sub-demographics of women, related to ethnicity, age, religion, gender identity, disability and sexual orientation, are also taken into account when formulating relevant strategies and policies.
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023 (IWD), we asked our female leaders from our International Employment practice to share their insights on fundamental ways that leading employers can #EmbraceEquity in the workplace.
How leading employers can foster an equitable workplace
Rachel Bernasconi, employment law partner in Seyfarth’s Sydney office, concedes that if there was an easy way to achieve equity, we would have achieved it by now. Although embracing equity involves a lot of effort, Rachel counsels employers not to despair. Rachel believes it’s important for employers to strive to make steady, consistent, and incremental progress towards equity. Rachel says employers “should keep trying new ways of doing things and be open to new approaches to activities. Question whether these activities can be done differently and in a more equitable and inclusive way”. Consultation around what equity means for employees is key–Rachel encourages employers to listen to their younger employees and those with diverse backgrounds who might have ideas about better ways to do things or to approach issues that are not constrained by history or ‘the way it has always been done’.
Tessa Cranfield, employment law partner in Seyfarth’s London office, is excited by recent trends towards a compressed four-day week in Europe. A majority of UK employers who just participated in a UK-government-supported pilot have decided to maintain the model. Building on the more flexible working patterns out of the pandemic, she sees this as offering better prospects for working parents to keep their careers on track, and for less of the parenting burden to fall on women. She is (optimistically) hoping that agile working along with the trend towards increased pay transparency in Europe will continue to move the dial.
Justine Giuliani, employment law partner in Seyfarth’s Melbourne office, agrees with author Stephen Covey, who said: “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”. Justine believes that a team is ultimately the sum of its parts and that to embrace equity, employers should start with simple and effective aims such as creating a sense of belonging at work and fostering a team that celebrates difference. Justine says, “if employers can get the basics right, the foundation for growth and success is there”.
Sarah Goodhew, workplace health and safety partner in Seyfarth’s Sydney office, thinks it’s serendipitous that we are thinking about embracing diversity while Sydney is hosting World Pride, with lots of displays throughout the city (and no doubt other cities) celebrating inclusivity. Sarah recommends employers look at whether there is equity in the systems and processes within their business, not only whether there are equitable outcomes because, as Sarah puts it, “ the journey is as important as the destination”. Sarah points out that there are numerous studies that support that diversity, equity and inclusivity generate greater business performance outcomes, so an equitable workplace is not only a recruitment and retention tool, but it is also something that is necessary for business growth. Sarah acknowledges that leading employers know this and are striving to embed equity throughout their internal practices and systems.
Erin Hawthorne, employment law partner in Seyfarth’s Melbourne office, says that “genuine efforts” to level the playing field for all genders in the workplace is essential. But she acknowledges that identifying the gender based hurdles that trip people up before they even get in the race is tricky. Erin believes that leading employers who are committed to equity will be looking at the reasons why workers of particular genders are more or less comfortable in certain roles or more or less likely to apply for or secure promotions, and thinking creatively about how to help them overcome those obstacles and succeed. This also entails taking steps to ensure that equity programs align with the ‘special measures’ discrimination exemptions available under equal opportunity laws.
Philippa Noakes, employment law partner in Seyfarth’s Sydney office, says employers should be aware that their employees come to work with a range of personal experiences and/or life pressures. She adds that it’s important that employers give consideration to how, as an organisation, they can celebrate wins, track work progress, organise work meetings and socialise in a manner that is inclusive. Philippa says, “it can be easy to adopt a regular arrangement for such practices but keeping an open mind about how those practices can be adapted to enable participation by employees who might otherwise be unable to participate for a range of personal reasons, can have a positive impact on your workplace.” By being proactive and flexible with those practices, Philippa believes organisations can be more inclusive.
Kathryn Weaver, employment law partner in Seyfarth’s Hong Kong office, says that to retain women in the workplace and help them advance into leadership positions, leading employers must seek to find ways to reduce the impact of the motherhood penalty on female workers. Kathryn adds that “mothers who choose to remain in the workforce often miss out on pay rises, bonuses and opportunities such as promotions, because of the time they have taken away from work or because of assumptions made about their ambition, focus and abilities”. Some jurisdictions in Asia Pacific have legislated for shared parental leave in a bid to allow greater flexibility and choice in parenting/career decisions between partners. In those countries, Kathryn believes employers should encourage their employees to take advantage of the shared parental leave option, whilst making it clear to employees that neither parent will suffer a disadvantage due to spending valuable time starting or continuing a family. Kathryn also has advice for leading employers operating in jurisdictions where there is no statutory right to shared parental leave: create internal policies and practices that make the sharing of parental responsibilities between parents not just the norm, but also accepted and celebrated. Shared parental leave also creates greater equity for LGBTQ couples and couples having families in non-traditional ways (depending on how the law/policy is drafted).
IWD’s theme for this year is #EmbraceEquity. For more IWD information and resources, please visit www.internationalwomensday.com.