Richard Branson: Why we all need to stand up for gender equality in the workplace

The companies across the Virgin Group strive to promote a climate of diversity and inclusion, with many of the businesses being led by females in what might typically be deemed male-dominated industries. A factor Richard Branson believes is crucial to their success...

"Any effort to advance gender equality must start with basic equal rights. Women struggle for equality every day, in every nation, in both the developing and developed world. In many places, women are still restricted in their ability to make independent economic decisions, to travel freely, to drive a car or to file for divorce," writes the Virgin Group founder.

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"And of the world’s almost 800 million people aged 15 and older who are illiterate, about two-thirds are women, a proportion that hasn’t changed for two decades."

According to the Virgin Group founder, the need for basic equal rights is something that every company still needs to be striving for, with the numbers of female employees in senior positions still making for depressing reading across the board.

"The World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap - measured in health, education, economic opportunity and political empowerment - won’t close until 2186. That’s 169 years from now. In the same time span, humankind went from the steam engine to Cassini’s trip to Saturn, and from carrier pigeons to the internet. I’d like to think that we could achieve universal gender equality much faster than that.

"Equality should not be considered just a woman’s issue, either. Everyone should be taking action to help achieve parity more quickly, and we will all be far better off once we do."

Gender budgeting

So what practical changes can help make the difference? One suggestion which Branson highlights is that of gender budgeting.

"One way to start is for governments to introduce gender budgeting, which takes into consideration the ways in which policies differently affect men and women. We’ve ignored this for far too long, but there are some great examples of countries moving in the right direction.

Read: Understanding the Richard Branson approach to leadership

"For instance, Rwanda’s investments in basic sanitation over the last several years have led to better health and hygiene and have increased the enrolment of more girls in schools. Austria has enacted reforms that adjust taxation on secondary earners, which had previously impeded the participation of women in the labour force.

"And Sweden, as a pioneer in this field for over a decade, has been marked as the best country in the world for women. Gender equality remains one of the cornerstones of the country’s society, which has seen its government repeatedly adjust its budget to address challenges such as violence toward women and disparities in pay and economic participation. In addition, the five Scandinavian countries’ legislation of quotas for women on company boards seems to have worked very well."

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New approaches to childcare

However it’s not just governments who can effect change, with the Virgin Group founder highlighting innovative workplace schemes introduced by businesses in both Japan and Sri Lanka.

"But it’s not just our governments that can foster effective change. Businesses can and must do much more to promote equality, respect and fairness. Removing barriers like discrimination through education and training is a necessity for business success. This can be done through a variety of company policies, from accommodating the parental demands on both genders to leadership and mentoring programmes for women.

"I was particularly impressed to read an announcement in February from the Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido - which has maintained childcare facilities in their factories for more than a decade - saying that they would be helping other companies set up in-house nurseries through a new venture. The move helps to address the growing issue of women not having children in order to stay in the workforce.

"The Sri Lankan-based apparel provider MAS Holdings also sets a positive example with its Women Go Beyond scheme, which has enrolled women in classes on domestic violence awareness, financial management and computer literacy since 2003."

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