Achieving gender equality in the workplace

It’s time to tackle the gender imbalance in Britain’s boardrooms says Helen Croft of The Results Centre. She discusses what we can learn from other countries and how we can redress the balance.

The arrival of 2015 marks a milestone for women in business. Back in 2011, The Women on Boards Report, led by Lord Davies, recommended that FTSE 100 boards should comprise at least 25% women. So how close are we to achieving that goal; and what are the key issues affecting the gender debate?

The figures suggest that some progress has been made. The number of women directors on FTSE 100 boards has risen from 15% in 2011 to just below 23% in September 2014, according to the Professional Boards Forum BoardWatch. Furthermore, Denise Wilson, CEO of the Women on Boards group believes that the UK has made significant strides since the publication of the original report, saying ‘Along with Australia, we are two countries in the world that have made really great progress – we just need to keep it up’.

However, the Department for Business recently reported that 61 of the FTSE 100 firms have not yet attained the magic 25%, whilst Wilson herself admits to being ‘slightly concerned’ at the slowing pace of appointment of female executives in the latter half of 2014. Furthermore, Britain achieved a dismal ranking in the 2014 Global Gender Gap survey carried out by the World Economic Forum. Failing to even make the top 20, Britain actually fell by eight places to 26th, behind countries such as Nicaragua, Burundi and Rwanda.

In the same survey, the Nordic countries performed particularly well with Iceland, Finland and Norway in the top three. Norway in particular is notable for being the first country to implement gender quotas of 40% female representation in 2008.

The quota debate

Quotas provoke diverse and often heated responses. A recent debate hosted by the Norwegian-British Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with the Norwegian Embassy and Innovation Norway discussed how the system was working in Norway. Attended by business leaders and speakers which included Denise Wilson, the consensus seemed to be that operational performance had not been compromised by the quota system, and had actually increased access to a wider pool of talent with greater cultural diversity.

However, whilst the system appears to have been successful so far in Norway it’s important to appreciate that these pioneers started from a radically different position from the UK, and so even if we were to adopt similar measures, we would be unlikely to experience similar levels of success.

For example, Norway is well known for advocating paid maternity and paternity leave (after the first 13 weeks, either parent can take the remainder of paid leave from work) and subsidised childcare. Unlike the UK, there is no preconception that the mother should bear the major responsibility for managing child-related issues requiring absence from the workplace. Success in Norway came on the back of decades of a fundamental difference in how the Nordic society thinks about gender and family.

Identifying the key issues

Unfortunately, the quota debate can sometimes obscure the key issues. Whatever decisions are made about quotas, targets or otherwise, companies need to evaluate their own contribution to the equality issue and how that can influence their future prosperity. After all, having a satisfied, balanced workforce which feels valued is an essential ingredient for any successful company.

As someone who works with women in senior positions, I come across certain recurring issues. It’s acknowledged that the sexes think and behave differently – yet the workplace is often predicated on a male behaviour model. This presents an enormous challenge for many women. Many businesses respond by creating less demanding roles for women with families to return to. However, this can create a sense of frustration, boredom and lack of engagement – as well as failing to prepare the individual for any future progression in line with their capability.

Meeting the needs of your people

Research shows that around 43% of women who have children will leave their job at some point. About 75% will later return, but only 40% of those will resume employment full time. In addition, increasing numbers of successful women at the peak of their careers are leaving because they no longer have the passion for their job. Being engaged by what they are doing is a vital factor for the female psyche – with current trends suggesting this is increasingly a factor for men too. It seems that people are replacing the question ‘what do I want to achieve in my career?’ with ‘what kind of life do I want to have?’

To begin meeting these sorts of needs, businesses may need to rethink the way they operate. This could include initiatives such as flexible working; job shares, home working and results-based contracts with no standard hours at all.

For some, the steady progress made appointing women to boardroom positions is too slow; for others, proactive moves such as introducing quotas violate the principle of merit. However, if we are to address issues of balance and bring the best out in women, the starting point is accepting that men and women behave and think differently. Embracing this diversity and giving people the opportunity to develop their individual potential, no matter what their sex, will ensure that organisations have fulfilled and effective people in post. It may not happen as fast as it should, but for change to really work, we have to be realistic in identifying our starting point and build on what is already in place.