Could Now be our Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity to Achieve Gender Equality?

The Pink Recession has never hit harder – so there’s never been a greater opportunity to achieve gender equality.

The internet abounds with stories of the disproportionate ill effects that the pandemic has had on women, from devastating many women-centric industries, such as travel, retail and hospitality, to forcing many women out of work and into caring duties. The so-called ‘pink recession’ has been so disastrous, in fact, that some commentators believe it could repeal decades of progress in fighting for equality.

What is clear is that a catastrophe on the scale of COVID can – and has – permanently and fundamentally changed some things that we previously deemed immutable, for example: the question of where and how we work, and also our need for business travel. So I have a question: could we significantly move the dial with equality in the same way? Or isn’t it as simple as that? If not, why? 

Haven’t we already achieved equality? 

One of the inhibitors of progress on gender equality is the belief that it has already been achieved. Think that sounds absurd? It isn’t. In fact, according to one survey, more than one-quarter of all Americans believed that the US has ‘no issues’ with gender equality. Concerningly, a similar survey run on a global scale found that a staggering two-thirds of all men thought that gender equality had been achieved, compared to less than half of all women, who believed that their leaders needed to be doing much more about the equality situation. 

Regardless of how you see the world, evidence of inequality is everywhere. From the fact that there are more men named John in leadership positions in the US than there are women, to the fact that up to 81% of women have experienced sexual assault (and many of these occur at work), it’s clear that we are still leaps and bounds from anything resembling equality. 

And that – sadly – is just the picture from the first-world, and barely takes into account the fact that many women in developing nations are still denied an education and as many as 40 million are forced into modern slavery.

As much as I truly believe that procurement is leading the way in many things, I have to admit we could do a lot better when it comes to gender equality, especially when it comes to leadership and the pay gap. As we’ve written numerous times before, CIPS surveys have revealed that the average pay gap in procurement has narrowed from 23% in 2015 to 21% in 2019. Ok – that’s a start … but there’s still a long way to go. 

But the statistics when it comes to leadership have gone the other way. The gender pay gap for senior positions has risen from 15% in 2015 to 35% in 2020. 

For the average woman, this is how the gender pay gap plays out across the course of their lifetime. From as soon as they graduate, according to a 2017 study, women face a gap of up to 4.8%. This gap is severely compounded when women take maternity leave (in fact, it has been shown to begin as soon as a woman announces her pregnancy), with researchers estimating that raising children accounts for a 17% loss in lifetime wages for women.

This loss of income has real and serious consequences for women across their lifetime. If women do become widowed or divorced, they have substantially less income to draw on. Also, horrifyingly, finances are stated as one of the top reasons why women in abusive relationships don’t leave. All of these factors work against women, until they retire with only half of the superannuation (retirement savings) than their male counterparts have, with many facing poverty in later life.

As shocking as these statistics are, sometimes it’s difficult to imagine just how unfair they really are, with many commentators still claiming that the gender pay gap is due to ‘choices women make.’ So let me explain it in a different way for you. Imagine you had a son and daughter, and you gave them both the same chores (like in this clever video). Would you give your son $10 in pocket money, and your daughter $6.50? 

No you wouldn’t, because that is fundamentally unfair, and quite frankly, ridiculous.  

Case in point. 

Could now be a good time to change? 

To equate gender equality to children and lollies does simplify a very complex reality. We can’t forget that it was barely fifty years ago that the marriage bar was abolished, enabling women, for the first time, to continue to work in the public service after they got married. Around that time, barely 40% of women worked, and even less worked after marriage and, especially, after children.

Thankfully, a lot has changed in fifty years. Women now earn more degrees than men (note, though, that this has been true for a long time), and occupy about half of all management positions. Women have also celebrated some incredible firsts, from becoming CEOs of international corporations to, of course, becoming vice-president of the United States of America. 

But still, the slow – and at times, glacial and backsliding – march towards gender equality can be frustrating to say the least, and, especially during disasters like COVID, can threaten to overwhelm anyone who is invested in it. For me personally, our progress in equality (or lack thereof) is, as a Big Ideas speaker recently confided to me, like a small puncture in your tyre. Sure, you can keep riding your bike for a bit and everything might seem fine. Then, slowly but surely though, you realise that it isn’t.

For me, the pandemic has been a real ‘aha’ moment when it comes to gender equality. It’s essentially become this trainwreck of terrible situations for women, and we’ve been so easily able to drastically change other elements of society but not this. As an example, every single one of us working from home has heralded many innovations, from remote modular offices to virtual drinking games. Could we not apply the same thinking to gender equality? Could we not simply say: 

Enough is enough. We don’t want equality in 170 years, or even 10 years. We want it today. 

Could we not apply the same effort, innovation and agile thinking that we did to solving the work from home problem to solving the gender equality problem once and for all? 

I think we could. And I think now could be the ideal time to make that change. 

Equality at work requires equality at home

Many people who do not support gender equality efforts (or those who do not give it much thought) question the ‘why’ behind the effort. Isn’t our society already a meritocracy, they say.  If we try to adjust the system through efforts such as quotas and special provisions for working mothers, then might that mean that we don’t get the best person for the job? Men and women have equal opportunities to work – don’t they? 

Yet in a world where women still predominantly take maternity leave, still predominantly work part-time, and still predominantly are expected to be the primary carer when they do work, this ‘merit’ is really a false concept. Let me explain. 

It is exceedingly hard for two people to have ‘big’ careers, simply because it is so demanding raising children. As any parent will attest, when children are young they need a lot of attention and get sick often, and then as they grow, they become more emotional and needy in a different way. Every family – regardless of its makeup – needs a backstop, a carer who will give more time to keep the family engine going. 

For me personally, I was this backstop for about fifteen years. Fortunately, we had help at home, yet still, the job of being a primary carer defaulted to me … why? It was just a decision that my husband’s career was going well at the time and it seemed to make sense for the family. 

Now, the roles are reversed and my husband is the primary carer. I don’t think I realised how refreshing it could be to walk out the door and to only have to think about work until I did it! Being liberated from the minutiae of family life has, I strongly believe, opened up opportunities and possibilities I could never have imagined before. Sure, my success now is because of merit. But it has also come because I have had the time, availability and mental capacity to pursue it. 

COVID has heralded even more domestic work (and some would say, domestic burdens) for women, in every arena from home-schooling to caring for sick loved ones. So just like now could be the time to solve for this at work, now is also the time – and has to be the time – to solve for this at home, too.

The solution

There’s no doubt about it: now is the time. Now is the time to ensure we get equality right. But how? 

CPOs and leaders out there, there’s a few big things you can do. Start here: 

Gender equality: A 2021 CPO Game-Changing Commitment 

1. Close that gender pay gap! 

Sound impossible? It’s not. 

The pay gap is, of course, a highly complex issue, but the first step towards tackling it is for both employers and employees to be deliberate in their resolve to do just that. 

This year, Procurious and The Faculty have been proactively working with many of our member organisations and asking the question: Have you closed the gap? We’ve been finding that asking the question has been a great prompt (or reminder) of the commitment all leaders need to make to ensure action is taken. 

But if you’re not there yet, don’t worry: the time to start is now. There are plenty of tools available to help you, including this great checklist from Lean In. Even if your HR team doesn’t champion this change, be the person who does. 

2. Mentor a female procurement executive outside of your organisation 

One unequivocal truth about gender equality is that little girls (and boys, too) cannot be what they can’t see. And stereotypes continue to reign supreme, as demonstrated by this eye-opening video where children are asked to draw a fireman, surgeon and fighter pilot (no prizes for guessing which gender they assign to these roles). 

The one thing you can do to help is to help lift another woman in procurement up. I can say from my own career that all of my major career role models have been female, and I look back on them with awe in terms of what they have achieved. My female mentees have also been an equal source of inspiration and motivation, I have found. 

Do your part in helping to create more of those role models. 

3. Put your home life on display 

Of course, I don’t mean bringing the spat you’ve just had with your partner to the office. What I mean is ensure you are taking responsibility at home and supporting others to do so. Don’t schedule meetings at drop-off time or outside of work hours. Take time to be involved with your kids. Visit your elderly parents and leave the office early to do it. 

By visibly showing your family commitments, you make sure everyone else feels comfortable doing so. 

Given the seismic shift that needs to occur for us to achieve equality, all of us, including every single woman in procurement, needs to do their bit to contribute. On this, I recommend the following: 

Gender equality: A 2021 Women in Procurement Game-Changing Commitment 

1. Support each other 

This is my number one rule. Always has been; always will be. We all need to support each other as we know what the stress points are, and we can back each other if need be. 

2. Negotiate and don’t be a hero 

Put your negotiation skills to good use! Negotiate with your partner, family and friends to ensure you have the emotional and physical support you need to be successful. Especially when your children are young, it’s about survival (you won’t always be thriving, trust me!). Pay for help if you can afford to, be kind to yourself and take care of yourself. 

Another place that our negotiation skills are needed are when we negotiate for our pay and conditions. Just like we wouldn’t walk into a procurement negotiation without a plan, so too do we need to ensure that we walk into every performance review with a clear view of your target salary and the business case for change. Advocating for yourself and your future is as important – or perhaps, more important – than any supplier negotiation you’ll conduct. 

3. Let go of perfectionism and invest that time in networking 

I’ve learnt something surprising in the 30 years of my career, and that is: near enough is good enough. Instead of striving for perfection, get something done and move on. Then, invest that time in talking up your achievements and networking with those who value them (and you). Get out there, build your network, promote yourself and continue to learn. 

I don’t think we need to talk about this anymore 

Sometime in the not too distant future, when discussing whether or not we need to work in offices, someone is going to say ‘I don’t think we need to talk about this anymore.’ They are going to say of course we can all work remotely. We’ve been doing it for over a year. It’s settled, finished. Can we just get on with it?  

And you know what? I want that same statement for gender equality. 

Gender equality success will not be measured by some target for hiring, or when we see more women on boards, or even when we see reduced rates of assault and violence (of course I want all of these things). 

Success will be when we don’t have to talk about this anymore. When it’s not even a topic, when we just exist in harmony, as equal work colleagues with equal pay, equal treatment and equal opportunities. 

And if the last year and half of near-turmoil has taught me anything, it’s that we can change, and rapidly. 

So now it’s time we do.