The focus on women’s advancement can’t just be limited to one day, whether it’s International Women’s Day (IWD) or promoted through Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) events, charters, and initiatives. We cannot deny that awareness days and initiatives are crucial for individuals, groups, and organisations to amplify and enforce their commitment to bringing equality, fairness, and better outcomes for women in their work, families, and life. But is enough being done?

Who run the world?

According to Beyoncé, it’s girls that run the world, but the data tells a very different story. Evidence shows not enough is being done to support girls and women as they progress through life and work and it’s a systemic problem even through school years and higher education. We conducted our survey at Simplify Consulting with 10% of women experiencing barriers in education because of their gender and of the school-age students surveyed, we found a clear gender bias in career expectations of boys and girls¹.

Teach First an education charity revealed the gender confidence gap with more female students lacking confidence when studying mathematics and science than their male counterparts. More than half of female pupils (54%) said they did not feel confident in learning maths, compared to 41% of male pupils².

Looking at Higher Education enrolment statistics for 2001/2022, overall 57% of students are female favouring veterinary sciences, psychology, and subjects allied to medicine. Whilst males make up 43% of students, the highest proportion of male enrolments were in engineering and computing³.

Perhaps the good news lies in Business and Management subjects being most popular among students with 47% female and 53% male enrolments in the same enrolment year.

Mind the gap.

As we enter the workplace, statistics from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show the gender pay gap declining slowly over time. In April 2023 it stood at 7.7% having fallen from 10.5% in 2011⁴.

Many businesses have tried to promote their gender diversity efforts but with some unfortunate results. How can we forget last year, a Twitter (now X) bot savagely calling out companies’ gender pay gaps in response to International Women’s Day (IWD) tweets. The bot used IWD tweets shared by UK companies listed on the government’s gender pay gap service website⁵ to call out the business’ gender pay gap information in their reply. It was not pretty. There was a lot of online noise as firms were exposed but all it did was show the cold reality of gender wage inequality.

Perhaps using guerilla tactics on IWD is what we are reduced to when positive change is too slow.

Double jeopardy.

With gender inequity starting in education and continuing in the workplace, it’s a bigger blow for women working in finance. UK finance has the largest median gender pay gap of any sector. Women suffer double the wage disparity compared to the UK average.

The average woman working in the UK finance industry earns around 26% less than their male counterparts⁶. According to the 2023 Women in Finance report, women won’t reach gender parity at senior levels in financial services until 2037 at the current pace.

The gender gap permeates across women’s financial fortunes from pay to pensions. Now: Pensions’ 2024 gender pensions gap report⁷ found that women retire with pension savings of £69,000 compared to £205,000 for men. To close the gap, a girl would need to start pension saving at three years old just to retire with the same amount. A shocking statistic.

Promises, promises, promises.

To tackle the problem the UK government launched the HM Treasury Women in Finance Charter in March 2016 to encourage the financial services industry to improve gender balance in senior management. The Charter now has more than 400 signatories covering more than a million employees across the sector.

The Charter is a step change but also voluntary with companies choosing their own targets. In 2022 average female representation increased to 35% and for the first time the top quarter of firms in the Charter (52) achieved at least 40% female representation in senior management⁸.

Much of the Charter is proving a success but it also highlights challenges ahead and where targets help, focus must be maintained.

The long and winding road.

Much has been discussed and pledged and change is happening, but progress is slow. More needs to be done to improve the pace of change to achieve permanent acceptance of women in finance.

The industry has taken a voluntary approach but unless it takes meaningful action, it may face the threat of a more prescriptive approach. By contrast, the Nordic regions are often cited as a role model for equality in society, with Norway being the first country in the world to introduce a quota for women on boards, and Sweden and Finland using a ‘comply and explain approach’.

So what now for the industry?

  • More companies need to sign up for the Charter and be accountable for their promises
  • Collaboration of signatories to work together is crucial and will require consistency, resources, and a sustained effort
  • Embedding gender balance into business-as-usual decision-making

Only then will it drive forward permanent and sustainable change and not be relegated to blustering on International Women’s Day.

Will change happen through these efforts or will enforcement be the answer?