Scream if you want to go faster: now is a pivotal moment for gender equality

Picking up the pace on flexibility is essential to accelerating gender equality, writes WACL Campaigning Chair, Mel Exon. Recent findings from the All In Census and Wacl’s Flexible First Checklist tell us why, how far we have come as an industry, and how far we have to go.

Today is March 23rd 2022, two years to the day since the UK first went into lockdown. Two years, in our working lives at least, which have passed in a blurred Zoom-background flash, and simultaneously dragged on for all eternity. (New memories formed during intense periods of change apparently tend to do that to our brains, especially when punctuated by rather less intense periods sitting on sofas in our trackies).

Along the way, words like ‘hybrid’ took on new currency and meaning. Not – as I like to imagine – as a perennial topic on Gardeners’ Question Time, but instead as a shorthand that belied the complexity of managing an autonomous workforce moving between office and remote working.

Now we find ourselves at another inflection point. With the lifting of all Covid restrictions in the UK, we should start to learn which working practices become the cultural norm and which get consigned to history. It’s a pivotal moment for gender equality in the workplace.

The pandemic penalty

A myriad of data points prove the disproportionate impact that the Covid-19 crisis has had on women’s careers. Recently published All In Census data underlines again, at real scale, the barriers women still face (at 16,000 respondents it’s the largest ever survey conducted in our industry). Inequalities that only get worse when we apply an intersectional lens.

All In Census evidence that bears repeating

  • 10 times more women than men believe parental leave negatively impacted their career progression (53% of women versus just 5% of men) 
  • In terms of representation, our industry is a ‘glass pyramid’ with fewer and fewer women at each successive level of seniority. Women represent 70% of junior managers but account for only 39% of C Suite roles, ramming home the barriers to career progression and promotion women in our industry face.
  • What’s more, the experiences of women of colour, women with disabilities, women from the LGBTQ+ community and older women1 show the inequalities of representation and experience only get worse when we view them through an intersectional lens
  • The painfully inevitable consequence of all of this? Women are overall six times more likely to be personally discriminated against because of their gender and about two thirds more likely to say they are likely to leave the industry than men. 

Yet as responses to International Women’s Day showed earlier this month, some in our industry are more than a little incredulous that gender inequality is still a thing. Whilst others are plain sick of hearing the familiar, all too depressing UK statistics that suggest it could take another 30 years to fix.

An inclusive recovery

The danger is we retreat into denial or start to see this problem as too big to solve; but the truth is we need to ask bigger questions. We cannot talk about the ‘great resignation’ or the ‘war for talent’ without recognising the truth that getting more talented women of all backgrounds to progress further and stay in work for longer is business critical for our industry.

Forgive me for wanting to scream: we know the levers that accelerate the inclusion gains our industry has begun to make, we just need to pull them faster.

So how to address the barriers women face? How can leaders keep building their stores of empathy and fight for more of the inclusion gains our industry has begun to make? How do we empower more men to take the shared parental leave so many want, but so few actually take? And when will we ditch our unholy obsession with presenteeism and reward outputs and outcomes instead?

A starting point for change

Far from being too big to solve, the starting point for change is simple. WACL’s Flexible First Checklist, a self assessment tool for flexible working, shows us how far we’ve come as an industry and the steps we need to take now to stop female talent walking out the door. Backed by CMI, ISBA and Campaign from launch in November 2020, WACL recently relaunched the checklist2 in partnership with All In, as their ‘action to improve the experience and representation of women.’

The first year of WACL Flexible First checklist data (2020-21) gives us a baseline picture revealing a 50:50 split3 between companies self-assessing as competent or highly competent in their approach to flexible working across key criteria4 and those who did not.

Practice eats policy for breakfast

The most salient difference between the two? A commitment to flexible working in practice, including how embedded this was in company culture, versus those still circling around policy. The companies ahead of the curve are advertising all jobs as flexible, measuring the impact of flexibility, actively encouraging shared parental leave, and role modelling from the top.

On policy

Most companies had a flexible working policy in place, even if 41% of them said this was under review. Added to this, a reassuring 82% agreed that their colleagues who work flexibly are equally valued by the organisation and 72% agreed top management within their workplace support flexible working.

Yet in practice

  • 42% of respondents stated “we advertise all jobs as flexible”, with 39% saying “we advertise a few jobs as flexible”
  • 20% were starting entirely from scratch in terms of leaders having training to manage remote workers and distribute workload. Over a third said they did not have specialist support initiatives for workers returning after career breaks
  • And, whilst a majority had some metrics in place to measure the impact of flexible working, many were not yet clear about the impact on productivity, recruitment & retention, business costs, employee engagement & well being, or their DEI targets

What we know so far in 2022: early signs of more progress 

The good news – albeit very early days since relaunch of the checklist in late January 2022 – is that more companies are shifting up that curve, with two thirds of all new checklist completions being awarded Flexible First Leadership and Standard Marks5, versus the 50:50 split of 2020/21.

What’s more, there are further grounds for hope in the cross section of (brand, media, agency, consultancy) organisations stating that they actively encourage their shared parental leave policies and advertise all jobs as flexible. Some also agree with the statement that prospective employees can request flexibility as part of the appointment process, ahead of day 1 in the job.

Why we should care

At its simplest: when flexible working is a culturally accepted norm, more women are able to stay in work for longer, allowing them to progress further and take on higher paid roles. This directly tackles6 the infamous glass pyramid for women, helping to close the gender pay gap estimated7 to stand at a shocking 24% for our industry – worse than the national level of 18.4% (2021 median aggregate gap for part time and full time workers) and 13.7% (for full time workers).

Addressing the gap for women, without creating one for men

And when we act to ensure flexibility is normalised and accepted as part of working culture, this isn’t just good for women; there are business benefits for employers and benefits for all employees, regardless of gender. For a start, helping to bridge the gap between the 73% of men who want to take shared parental leave in the UK and the paltry 0.5- 8% who actually take it.

How to be flexible in practice, not just policy

In short, we’re making progress with flexible working, but still a way to go before our industry reaches maturity. So what can we all do now?

  • Leaders need to be adaptive: experiment, listen, act. Rinse and repeat.
  • Asynchronous, hybrid working means ‘one size does not fit all’: have a playbook instead. Look at deliverables by project and build greater autonomy by team and individual, instead of a rigid, blanket rule. 
  • Actively encouraging your Shared Parental Leave policy helps ensure pluralistic ignorance8 isn’t holding men eligible for SPL back from sharing the care.
  • Making flexible working the default is a big, positive step. Making it stick for the long term? That requires proper job design.
  • Commercial performance, diversity, equity & inclusion targets and the so-called ‘war on talent’ are all board level goals; make sure you have metrics in place to measure the impact of flexible working (the WACL checklist offers a guide).
  • And finally, I wouldn’t be a WACL campaigner if I didn’t suggest we all take the new Flexible First Checklist 2022/23. The checklist gives us the space to focus on outcomes, by taking away the hard work of plotting the steps to take. First, it acts as a guide to the essential considerations and actions. Second, it identifies any obstacles getting in the way of making flexible working the cultural norm inside our organisations.

Why this is worth your time

Because decades of data proves the business case on flexibility; and the people benefits too, regardless of gender9.

Because the playing field is still not level for women of all backgrounds. Particularly women of colour, women with disabilities, women who identify as LGBTQ+ and older women.

Because flexible working is a proven leveller.

All of which is why All In chose the Flexible First Checklist as their action to improve the experience and representation of women in our industry.

On the cusp of this once in a generation opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better, the time to move the dial on flexible working is now.

A version of this article was originally published by Campaign on 23rd March 2022

With grateful thanks to:

Our Flexible First Checklist backers: The Chartered Management Institute, Advertising Association, ISBA, the IPA and Campaign.

And particular thanks to the following for their time and expertise in reviewing the new edition of the Checklist:

Daisy Hooper, Head of Policy & Public Affairs, CMI

Liz Spratt, Head of Research & Insight, CMI

Graeme Griffiths, Associate Director of Research, IPA

Dan Wilks, Consultant to the Advertising Association and Evaluation Director, Myriad Research 

Bobi Carley, Head of Media and Diversity & Inclusion Lead, ISBA

Sharon Lloyd Barnes, Commercial Director and Inclusion Lead, Advertising Association

Bina Booth, All in Campaign Manager, Advertising Association

Leila Siddiqi, Associate Director, Diversity, IPA

Paul Broughton, Head of HR, ITV Commercial 

Lianre Robinson, CEO, & WACL Campaigning Vice Chair

Jenny Lister, Research Director, National Research Group & WACL Futures Campaigning committee member

Jessica Tagg, UK Head of Sales, Blis & WACL Futures Campaigning committee member


1 A hugely disproportionate percentage of All in Census respondents identifying as women leave the workforce as they get older: women represent 79% of the workforce at 18-24 yrs, which drops to 42% (at 55-64 years) and 27% (at 65+ years).

2 All in Census gave WACL early access to their findings to help ensure the new Checklist was fit for purpose a year on. Find out more about how the Checklist questionnaire was evolved for 2022/23 here.   

3 Some 400 companies used WACL’s Flexible First Checklist between Nov 2020 & Dec 2021, with 23% of completions achieving a Flexible First Leadership Mark and 29% achieving a Flexible First Standard Mark, leaving just under half of the completed entries not meeting that threshold.

4 WACL’s Flexible First Checklist assesses against 5 topics: HR Policy & Knowledge, Infrastructure & Technology, Employee support systems, Impact Metrics, Culture & Leadership.

5 40% and 35% of completed entries have gained Flexible First Leadership & Standard marks respectively since late January 2022, leaving just 25% not achieving that competency threshold.

6 Chung, H. & van der Horst, M. ‘Women’s employment patterns after childbirth and the perceived access to and use of flexitime and teleworking. Human Relations’ 71(1): 47-72, 2018. University of Kent research conducted amongst 40,000 UK households.

7 A significant factor is the 10% gender pay gap amongst respondents earning above £100k. Note: in the All in Census survey respondents indicated which (full time only) salary band they belonged to as opposed to recording an actual salary, therefore this data is directional, only providing a broad indication on the level of pay parity in the industry.

8 Pluralistic ignorance can be defined as “the tendency of people to hold a particular opinion privately while mistakenly believing the majority of people disagree with that opinion. For example, if men mistakenly think that their colleagues and managers would disapprove if they worked flexibly, then they avoid doing so, anticipating negative social and career repercussions.” (‘Simply telling men that their peers support parental leave and flexible working, increases their intention to share care’, Behavioural Insights Team, June 2021)

9 Wacl’s summary of the evidence in support of flexible working: Why Flexible First

About the author

Mel Exon
Mel Exon
Portfolio Non-Exec Director
WACL Campaigning Chair 2021/22
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