By Kristy Dorsey

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the UK’s original Equal Pay Act, which prohibited any less favourable treatment of women versus men in terms of pay and conditions of employment. It was given royal assent in May 1970.

More than five years passed between the monarchy’s approval and the act coming into force, in December 1975. Campaigners at that time must have heaved a huge sigh of relief, believing that the long battle to bring an end to wage disparity had finally been won.

Despite any cynicism at the time about the extended lag between assent and enforcement, it’s difficult to believe the act’s supporters ever imagined that their daughters – and their daughters’ daughters – would still today be fighting for equality in the workplace.

That’s why International Women’s Day (IWD) stirs up a mix of emotions for many people. Despite countless industry initiatives, networking programmes, mentoring schemes and Government decrees, gender parity remains an elusive aspiration throughout most of the working world.

Today is the 110th anniversary of IWD, which is rooted in a noble cause but has in many ways become a marketing opportunity for the growing bandwagon of organisations keen to bolster their diversity and inclusion credentials.

That’s not to mention the collective schizophrenia on this topic, which is evident in the raft of headlines and press releases issued just this past week.

Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever revealed on Tuesday that, for the first time, it has achieved the same number of women as men in leadership roles throughout its global operations. The group – which owns brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, Dove, Knorr, Lynx, Magnum and PG Tips – said half of its 14,000 managers around the world are female, up from 38% in 2010.

That a company as large and complex as Unilever can manage this a year ahead of its self-imposed deadline is proof that parity is a possibility, but getting there required substantial and concerted effort. There was a particular focus on departments where women were historically under-represented: technology, finance and supply chain, where the percentage of female leaders now stands at 47%, 50% and 40% respectively.

But does parity in headcount equate to levelling the field when it comes to influence, decision-making and remuneration? A study released on Friday by the BI Norwegian Business School suggests not.

Executive gender quotas have been in effect in Norway for more than 20 years, which gave researchers the opportunity to examine the long-term impact of the minimum 40% representation on the boards of local councils throughout the country. In short, they found that quotas give women a position, but not necessarily power.

Despite increased female representation in Norway, researchers found no evidence of any shifts in public policies as a result. Similarly, there was no increase in the number of women being selected for mayor or other top administrative positions.

From this, the team at the BI Norwegian Business School concluded that quotas alone are not effective due to other undermining factors.

If further institutional, structural and organisational barriers are not addressed, gender parity will be ineffective in bringing about meaningful change.

This lack of influence is one of the major stumbling blocks when it comes to balancing the ledger in another thorny part of the parity equation – pay.

Since the first reports from the UK’s largest employers on the gender pay gap were published in April 2018, we have begun to put some numbers to the scale of the remuneration divide.

According to the last set of figures from 2019 – the deadline for filing this year is early next month – the median pay gap currently stands at 11.9%, up from 11.8% the previous year.

Men are typically paid significantly more than women in most UK businesses, and there are still no sectors in the UK economy where women are paid the same as men.

This led to November 14 of last year being dubbed “Equal Pay Day” in the UK – the date from which women are effectively working for free compared with their male counterparts. The Government had hoped the name-and-shame game would push employers into acting swiftly to narrow these disparities, but there is scant evidence to suggest this is yet taking effect.

It’s important here to remember that the pay gap is not the same thing as unequal pay. Unequal pay for the same work is illegal, whereas the pay gap is the result of having fewer women in senior roles, or more women working part-time.

And this is where a multitude of structural issues rooted in “societal norms” comes into play, feeding the disparity in both the remuneration and stature of women in work.

Overcoming hurdles such as promotion processes designed around traditionally masculine values will only be achieved when the biases that hide in our blindspots have been systematically rooted out.

This should be the focus of conversation around International Women’s Day, rather than the growing push among some organisations to use March 8 as a branding and marketing exercise.

Some of these campaigns have gone famously and fantastically wrong, such as when McDonald’s flipped its golden arches to become a “W” in honour of IWD 2018. The move prompted a backlash against the company’s poor record on wages for women.

It’s not that every corporate IWD campaign is a completely self-serving venture – anything that genuinely raises the profile of women in work is a welcome bonus.

So we welcome Thursday’s release of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s new £20 note, the first of that denomination to feature a picture of a woman other than the Queen – Scottish entrepreneur Kate Cranston. In fact, send along a million or two to start plugging that pay gap.

As the evidence clearly shows, it’s not that International Women’s Day no longer has a place in the UK.

But what’s needed is to move away from cheap stunts and soundbites towards an astute and constructive discussion about the structural foundations that have allowed gender disparity to linger decades beyond its rightful death.