Skip main navigation

£199.99 £139.99 for one year of Unlimited learning. Offer ends on 28 February 2023 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply

Find out more

Challenging Gender Inequality at work

Jemma and Lauren discuss gender inequality at work and how it is being tackled.
In this section we are going to explore what is being done to tackle gender inequality in the workplace and consider what more could be done. We are going to look at initiatives
and actions which address: supporting mothers in the workplace, the gendering of roles, progression and opportunity, and tackling bias in organisations. First, we’re going to look at supporting mothers in organisations. These initiatives are important for any parent but have particular significance for mothers as they are currently more likely to take on the primary responsibility for this role or take on a greater share of this role. Having good parental leave programmes is an important first step towards supporting parents, and the more evenly this can be shared, the more it will reduce the assumptions around gender roles. This requires effective legislation and corporate policy. Legislation sends an important signal about what is ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ and underpins parent’s rights.
Corporate policy can enhance this by offering more favourable terms, which also reinforces corporate culture around the roles of working parents in the organisation. In the case studies accompanying this video we give the examples of national legislation that support shared parental leave and organisational policies that provide generous support for parents. For example, Netflix, a television and film streaming service, now offers unlimited full-pay parental leave for the first 12 months after a birth or adoption, or allows parents to come back part-time, or full time, or move between leave, part-time or full-time work as required. Less positively, the take up of Shared Parental Leave, since introduced in the UK in 2015, has remained very low for fathers.
This has been blamed on factors such as cultural expectations and stereotypes, financial considerations and lack of awareness. In the US there is no universal legal entitlement to paid leave for parents. But in Sweden men use around 45% of the parental leave available. The government also plays a crucial role in ensuring there is affordable, or free childcare. Lack of affordable childcare can place a considerable financial burden on families such that going back to work can be an uneconomic option, as the salary is taken up by childcare costs. It can also influence the choice of who stays home to care for children as it makes financial sense for the lower earner of the household to take time off.
Since we have a gender pay gap this is more likely to mean the mother takes the extended period of time off, which further impacts their progression and future earning potential. Organisations can continue to support parents once back at work, with ways to enable a better balance between home and work-life, such as flexible working, which involves adjusted start and finish times, or hours adjusted ‘as required’. Another option is creche facilities at work. Google, for example, has policies that enable staff to bring children into work by offering creche facilities and by being open to parents having children in the workplace when required. Job share schemes also enable parents to balance their caring responsibilities with work.
Or employers could offer a mix between home and office-based working. These initiatives have relevance for all parents, but it is worth mentioning the particular challenges faced by lone parents. Lone parenting is a diverse category when considering the experiences faced by them, which can range from those who take on the care of their children without any assistance, to those who have extended support networks that share some of the responsibilities. Support made available to these parents, especially those who take on the full share of caring, are particularly important, as otherwise they might not be able to access the workplace. Lone parenting can be seen as disadvantaging lone fathers in a different way to mothers.
This is because whilst lone mothers are often very visible and receive a lot of attention (not all of which is favourable), lone fathers – a minority of lone parents – are often invisible and their needs can be ignored. Essentially, better mechanisms for supporting all parents helps to close this gap. The gendering of roles can be tackled by considering how we recruit for and design roles in organisations. Part of this can include designing roles so that they can be shared or arranged flexibly, as we’ve discussed. Considering gender bias in role design ensures that roles are realistic options for everyone, as they cater for different needs.
But as well as flexible practices, we also need to think about the trajectories of these roles. For example, if women’s flexible roles are designed in ways that offer less training or opportunities for progression, by – for example – affording less exposure to managerial experience, they retain some disadvantage. Similarly, the timing of working hours, and location of work can also impact the feasibility of undertaking the work. It can also be tackled in terms of how jobs are advertised. Evidence suggests that the gendering of the language used in job advertisements influences people’s desires to apply for the position.
For example, terms considered to be masculine, such as ‘competitive’ and ‘dominance’ are more likely to be found in jobs typically associated with men, and are therefore argued to deter females from applying. Words such as “supportive” and “collaborative” are seen to be feminine and likely to deter men from applying. This is not to say that men can’t be collaborative nor women be competitive, just that the choice of adjectives impacts people’s likelihood of applying. Iris Bohnet, who analysed data on the effect of adjectives on job applications, argues that we should remove gendered adjectives to widen the talent pool. Progression and opportunity can be tackled more directly through the use of quotas.
Quotas can be controversial, particularly if they are enforced rather than recommended. Examples include “women only” short-lists for selection to represent a party in an election, or minimum requirements for the representation of women on boards. The arguments for these are that progress in achieving gender equality has been too slow and requires intervention to make the change. This is particularly valuable if cultural attitudes are inhibiting progress, and only a forced change can alter this. It is then hoped that this intervention changes the momentum and creates attitudes which lead to further developments in the future.
However, these need to be supported by an effective pipeline of suitable female candidates to ensure that the talent pool from which selections can be made equate in size to that of men. Furthermore, it can add to the idea that women are selected not on merit but because they are women. Despite the criticisms, quotas can be an effective tool. Norway introduced a quota of a minimum of 40% females on boards in 2006 and achieved full compliance within a few years, with a threat of penalties if this is not achieved. Change can also be sought through exposing and encouraging discussion of apparent inequality, and this is one of the ambitions of the gender pay gap reporting initiative.
In the UK, to-date, there is limited evidence of this having a widespread positive effect, but the story is complex and it is a relatively new initiative. By requiring organisations to make their gender pay gap public, it is hoped that it will put pressure on organisations by impacting the decision-making of potential and current employees, and exposing those who cannot provide a satisfactory explanation for the gap to media scrutiny and criticism. Ultimately the aim is that this will lead to change. We’ll explore this in more depth shortly. Tackling bias in organisations can be addressed by unconscious bias training that seeks to expose and tackle implicit bias in decision-making, including gender-related bias.
This bias is deeply ingrained and often unconscious (in contrast to deliberate acts of discrimination). It initially seeks to make those undertaking the training aware of their bias, before providing them with the means to tackle it. However, the extent to which awareness of bias necessarily or easily leads to change in behaviour is disputed, despite it being popularised by, for example, the Harvard Implicit Association Test. Training is often a ‘one-off’ event, whereas changing behaviour often takes time and support. It is also targeted at individuals, but bias will also be affected by their immediate work-group. To be effective it also needs to be supported by appropriate organisational policies and practices that reinforce the learning.
As well as addressing the attitudes of others, training can also be given to enhance the confidence and ambition of women to reduce inequalities. Leadership development programmes specifically and exclusively targeted at women are one way of achieving this; as well as dedicated mentoring programmes, or support networks. “All-women” initiatives can be tailored to the needs of women and can be useful programmes to support women. However, they can also be separated from wider networks of power, so programmes need to be outward looking.
One of the more well-known examples of women-based initiatives is the “Lean In Circles”, based on ideas in a book by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, which argues that women in groups are likely to be more confident and ambitious, more likely to ask for, and receive promotions, and more likely to have a heightened awareness of the role that gender plays in the workplace. These may be formally supported by organisations, or informally developed amongst communities of women. As we can see, progress can be made in the workplace and at the individual, group, and organisational level. It and can be led by government legislation, organisational policies and practices, and employee led initiatives.

Jemma and Lauren discuss gender inequality at work and how it is being tackled.

Materials written by Dr Emma Jeanes, University of Exeter


  1. Bohnet I. What Works: Gender Equality by Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harcard University Press; 2016.

  2. Sandberg S. Lean in. Women, work and the will to lead. London: W H Allen; 2013.

  3. Shared Parental Leave around the world [Internet]. Stylist. 2019 [cited 28 June 2019]. Available from:

  4. The best companies to work for if you’re a parent-to-be [Internet]. Stylist. 2019 [cited 28 June 2019]. Available from:

  5. Tobin L. How the Google Campus creche is revolutionising workplace childcare. Evening Standard [Internet]. 2016 [cited 28 June 2019];. Available from:

Further sources

Bohnet on designing a gender bias-free organisation

Harvard Implicit Association Test. Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition.

Impact of quotas on women’s progression

Bertrand M, Black S, Jensen S, Lleras-Muney A. Breaking the Glass Ceiling? The Effect of Board Quotas on Female Labour Market Outcomes in Norway. The Review of Economic Studies. 2019;86(1):191-239. Available from:

A summary of Norway’s progress towards boosting female participation in the boardroom

Lean In circles. A site enabling the setup of ‘Circles’, small groups of women who meet regularly to learn new skills, network, and encourage each other

This article is from the free online

Understanding Gender Inequality

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education