UK slips further down global gender equality ranking

Poor results should be a ‘big wake-up call’ for the government, as experts call for tougher workplace regulations on discrimination

The UK has slipped down a global ranking of gender equality, largely because of inequality in the workplace and a persistent gender pay gap.

The ranking has led to calls from employment experts for tougher rules tackling discrimination in the workplace, and for businesses to offer more flexible working opportunities and be more proactive in addressing gender inequality. 

In its latest Global Gender Gap Report, which ranked 153 countries on measures of gender equality, the World Economic Forum (WEF) demoted the UK from 15th to 21st place. This put it behind a number of rich countries including Germany, New Zealand and Canada, but also behind less developed countries, including the Philippines, Nicaragua and Namibia.

While the UK ranked high on many other metrics, coming out on top for equality in education and literacy, it placed 58th for economic gender gap because of the large disparity between men and women’s earnings.

The report, which was compiled before last week’s general election, also cited poor political representation for women as a reason for the UK’s lower ranking.

Dr Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, said the UK was making progress on gender equality, but that this report showed the pace of change was “far too slow”.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

“The thought that future generations will still be having the same dialogue as we’re having now is unacceptable,” she said, calling on employers to get serious about making long and short-term change to tackle gender inequalities and to start using the “happy to talk flexible working” tagline in their recruitment.

Miller said the report also highlighted the insufficient care infrastructure in the UK, and reiterated calls from the CIPD for a reform of parental leave policies to offer more choice over how parents distribute caring responsibilities, for more affordable childcare and for the introduction of a week’s statutory paid carers.

“Business can have a significant impact on wider issues such as occupational segregation – especially in future skills sectors – as well as looking at whether their own people management practices are fair and inclusive to ensure women can reach their potential and rise to the top ranks,” she said.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, also called for stronger employment regulations to tackle discrimination, including for women to be given the right to know what a male colleague is earning if they suspect they are being discriminated against.

“We need a strategy for gender equality that addresses intersectional inequality, recognising that women of colour are doubly disadvantaged, tackles the underlying causes of the gap and removes the barriers to women’s economic and political participation,” she said.

“The fact that the UK has slipped down the international league tables and it will take generations to close the gender pay gap should act as a big wake-up call for the government.” 

Suki Sandhu, founder and CEO of INvolve, pointed to a lack of women in senior roles. “What we need to be seeing is a big focus on recruitment and retention of women in the workplace, ensuring that there is equality at the hiring process and that talent is being nurtured in the pipeline,” he said.

“To ensure we see this long-term change, we need to be championing women in senior positions, showcasing fantastic role models for future generations and ensuring that women feel that they belong in leadership positions. There isn’t an overnight solution to this, and it requires robust processes to ensure any changes actually have an impact on organisations.”

Internationally, the WEF predicted it would take 99 years for there to be social and economic gender parity, that women’s participation in labour markets had stalled and that financial disparities were increasing – particularly in emerging economies.

The ranking was topped by Iceland, followed by Norway, Finland, Sweden and Nicaragua.