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#BreakTheBias: The future of work imagined

The theme for International Women's Day 2022 is #BreakTheBias and.this year organisers are calling on employers to take decisive action against all forms of discrimination and bias, conscious or unconscious, to create inclusive work cultures where women can thrive.

For a long time, businesses have been responding to calls for integration of social and environmental issues in company policy from investors, customers and employees. Since the 2010s, there has been a push for greater convergence in ESG (Environmental, Social Governance) standards and, as of 2020, 88 percent of public trade companies and 67 percent of privately owned companies have ESG initiatives in place [1]. Today, more than 3,000 investors around the world have signed the UN's Principles for Responsible Investment, which include a commitment to comprehensive ESG analysis in investment decisions. The combined value of their assets under management grew from $6.5 trillion in 2006 to more than $100 trillion in 2020 [2]. These figures are mirrored in corporate policy and commitments to diversify teams, address gender pay gaps, and minimise environmental impact. However, the COVID-19 crisis prompted the biggest shift yet in workplace culture. As people across the globe found their ordinary routines restricted, with many being confined to their homes, the line between domestic and corporate life became blurred. This was paralleled by a shadow pandemic of spikes in violence against women and girls and employers were, for the first time, being called upon by politicians and public officials to implement strategies to protect employees from violence and abuse in the home. Gender inequality, discrimination and harmful social norms were put under a spotlight as the pandemic compounded many of the challenges already faced by women across the globe. As a result, the World Economic Forum predicts that women now have a 136-year wait to achieving full equality with men, an increase from 99 years according to pre-pandemic estimates [3]. To achieve gender equal workplaces, we need a more comprehensive understanding of the bias, discrimination and violence that continues to be faced by women.

Although bias can be seen in individual assumptions, inclinations and microaggressions, it is a systemic issue whereby harmful social norms are accepted and reproduced. It is discernible in the absence of any women of colour amongst FTSE 100 CEOs [4], in the 74 percent of parliament seats that are taken up by men globally [5], or the 77 cents women make for every dollar men earn [6]. The so-called 'motherhood penalty' persists as women with children face a wider wage gap and proximity bias as they are more likely to opt for flexible working options [7]. For many women, gender bias is compounded by other factors of their identity, such as their race, sexuality, religion, disability, age, indigeneity, geographic location, or economic status. One in eight Black and minority ethnic (BME) ethnic women working in the UK are employed in insecure jobs compared to one in sixteen white women [8].

In addition to its structural manifestation, bias also shapes workplace culture and impacts women's everyday experiences. UN Women reports that, across five regions, 82 percent of women parliamentarians report having experienced psychological abuse at work, from remarks and gestures to more overt threats and mobbing. 44 percent reported receiving death, rape, assault or abduction threats towards them or their families [9]. Across supply chains, women are subject to dangerous working conditions, long hours, informal contracts and low pay. For example, research across textile factories in Cambodia found that one in three women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace over a twelve-month period [10]. Microagressions also have a detrimental impact on self-esteem and mental wellbeing and create workplaces where employees feel uncomfortable, unsafe and undervalued. In the UK, nearly half of disabled BME women report being unfairly passed over or denied a promotion at work, 34 percent of BME women have experienced racist 'jokes' at work, and 45 percent of BME women in the UK said they have been singled out for harder or unpopular tasks compared to their white counterparts [11]. When faced with these statistics, it is clear where there is work to be done. The root of issues such as gender imbalance and diversity, the gender and ethnicity pay gap, and abuse at work is complex, but their relevance in corporate policy is clear.

At Thrive, a key part of our mission is ensuring that the more taboo topics pertaining to gender equality are not left out. 736 million women -- almost one in three -- have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, non partner violence, or both at least once in their lifetime, yet less than 40 percent of women who experience violence seek help of any sort [12]. Workplaces can fund provision of refuges, healthcare and legal support for their employees

Of course, workplace policy is not a substitute for refuge, healthcare and legal support. However, by implementing a clear company strategy for supporting employees facing abuse, awareness-raising and training sessions, companies play a crucial role in tackling stigma surrounding gender-based violence, in turn addressing a key barrier to women seeking support and challenging the social norms that underpin gender-based violence.

Domestic violence is a workplace issue -- 75 percent of domestic abuse survivors experience abuse whilst they are at work [13]. Within businesses, lack of support for challenges outside of work leads to absenteeism and low employee retention. Around the world, failure to address gender-based violence has an economic cost. In 2021, the cost of GBV across the EU was estimated at €289 billion [14]. In Morocco alone, the total cost of physical and/or sexual violence against women is estimated at 2.85 billion dirhams a year, the equivalent of 308 million USD [15], and in Egypt an estimated 50,000 working days are lost each year due to marital violence [16]. Across the global economy, advancing gender equality could add 13 trillion USD by 2030 [17].

The challenges posed by the pandemic over the past two years have shown that there is much about the future of work that will be shaped by external factors that are out of our control. But building resilient businesses and workplaces starts with serious, critical reflection and forward-thinking action to create inclusive work cultures free from bias, that support and retain talent and allow employees to thrive. To achieve this, employers must look at the bigger picture to understand the challenges employees face both inside and out of the workplace. Breaking workplace bias means confronting systemic discrimination and addressing gaps in support and inclusion through hiring, policy-making, awareness raising, training, and flexible working arrangements. Our mission at Thrive is to ensure that businesses are part of, not separate from, the global development agenda.

For more information on how Thrive's services can support your company's mission to achieving gender equality, email us at:

Written by Ruby Brooks

Research Executive at Thrive CIC



[1] Global Survey Finds Businesses Increasing ESG Commitments, Spending - NAVEX Global

[2] IFC ESG Guidebook

[3] Global Gender Gap Report 2021, World Economic Forum

[4] Sex & Power Index 2022 - The Fawcett Society

[5] Global Gender Gap Report 2021, World Economic Forum

[6], [7] Equal pay for work of equal value, UN Women

[8] BME women and work, TUC

[9] UN Women Facts and Figures: Ending violence against women

[10] "I know I cannot quit." The Prevalence and Productivity Cost of Sexual Harassment to the Cambodian Garment Industry, CARE International

[11] BME women and work, TUC

[12] UN Women Facts and Figures: Ending violence against women

[13] Seventy-five per cent of domestic abuse victims are targeted at work - employers need to protect them, inews

[14], [15], [16] UN Women Facts and Figures: Ending violence against women

[17] Gender parity can add US$13 trillion to GDP by 2030?, McKinsey study

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