The fight to make Bristol the first gender equal city in the country

One of the Charter's key goals is the promotion and availability of flexible and part-time working. Credit: Bristol Women in Business Charter

The Bristol Women in Business Charter is celebrating its two-year anniversary this month, having embarked on a journey to make Bristol the first city in the UK to achieve gender equality.

The charter currently brings together a group almost 40 commercial organisations, all committed to making progress on gender equality in the city.

It aims to recognise, support and accelerate the progress businesses are making and encourage employers of all sizes.

At a virtual anniversary event on Wednesday 24 March, founders of the Charter and their signatories marked the progress they have made over the last year, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking at the event, gender specialist Jenna Holliday recognised the difficulties faced by women and the equality movement as a result of the pandemic. 

She said: “A year ago the UK was plunged into a series of lockdowns governed by gender blind policies that resulted in a rollback in gender equality in the UK. 

“A rollback that has seen women’s unpaid and care work significantly increase. 

“A rollback that has seen the sectors in which women work shutdown and a rollback that has seen an increase in violence against women.”

According to research done by The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education, mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit during the pandemic, and 14% were more likely to have been furloughed since the start of the crisis.

Members of the Women in Business Charter at their launch in 2019. Credit: Bristol Women in Business Charter

The Women in Business Charter argues one of the largest barriers to women’s progression in the workplace is a conflict between work and caring responsibilities, an issue only exacerbated by Covid-19 and the measures taken to manage it.

One of its key goals is the promotion and availability of flexible and part-time working, especially at senior levels with higher levels of pay and conditions.

Anna Averis, People Director at Bishop Fleming, a signatory of the Charter, said: “The charter has really enabled us to put a spotlight on the issue of gender equality within our workplace at the most senior level. 

“We’ve really valued the ability to share ideas and experiences with other members of the charter, this has resulted in us making some very positive changes to our policies and processes but also making sure we’re continuously challenging what we need to do in order to attain and attract female talent.”

Talking to ITV West Country, Robert Halton, Chief People Officer at Bristol-based law firm Burges Salmon, explained how the Charter has guided positive change within the company.

He said: “When we first did the gender pay report, one of the first things we found in terms of our gap was the fact that traditionally within law firms because you have a lot of people who are secretaries and secretaries tend to be female that was weighting our gender pay gap.

“So one of the things we’ve done over the last two years is we’ve reviewed the role and we now no longer talk about secretaries but client support teams. 

“We have developed different roles across that branch of the firm to help career mobility.”

Those behind the Charter also believe a business cannot reach its full potential if it does not recruit and retain a gender-balanced workforce. 

Jenna Holliday echoed those views. She said: “Workplaces are where we find society, where our culture is negotiated and formed. 

“To build gender equitable workplaces, is to build gender equitable societies.

“When women are in leadership positions, decision making is more likely to be fair and inclusive.

“When women are in leadership positions, decision making also benefits the environment.”

Katie Russell, Data Director at Ovo Energy, shared the positive impacts implementing changes with help from the Charter has had on the company's workflow.

She said: “There’s a very symbiotic outcome to having a more diverse culture. It’s actually enriched all of the networks that we’ve launched, like the Ovo Gender Equality Network.

“By having more diverse talent, we’ve actually been able to further the conversation internally on how we can do more to improve our diversity and our evidence for why it helps.

“We believe we need to have a really diverse group of people at Ovo to help us achieve our big ambitions and to reflect our society.”

The Charter advocates for a society which will work together to make Bristol a better place to live and work.

Thangam Debbonaire, Member of Parliament for Bristol West has also expressed her commitment to the cause.

She said: “It’s important that we recognise that we shouldn’t be left to do this all on our own and I want to point to the idea of men as allies.

“To recognise that we all lose out when one of us is unable to fulfil her potential.”

So far the Charter has reached almost 40 companies and 27,000 employees but say their work is not done.

Those behind it believe gender equality can only be achieved if society pulls together.

They hope to encourage more businesses to sign the Charter and make steps toward a better city to live and work.

To sum up the cause Jenna Holliday said: "Bristol is a progressive, multicultural city, wrestling with diverging historical narratives of slavery but bound together in a shared vision of a sustainable future.

"Bristol never shies away from a challenge, no matter how disruptive and gender equality is disruptive in the best possible way.

"When you achieve representation and equality in workplaces you open yourself up to the challenge that people may start saying ‘why are we doing it this way.’”