Levelling the playing field requires bold action

Taking bold action to speed up gender equality is the theme for International Women’s Day 2017. This is yet another wake-up call to employers about the lack of gender balance that still exists in UK workplaces. We all know it’s a problem, but there’s still a stubborn implementation gap that needs to be addressed.

The extent of the problem became incredibly apparent to me when I put my details into the World Economic Forum’s gender gap calculator, which estimates how long it will take to close the global gender economic gap, based on the current pace of change. I’ll be 207 when that happens.

In the UK, there’s no doubt that we’ve made significant strides forward over the past few years, with government attention on female representation at executive levels and more recently on the gender pay gap, but the pace of change remains slow. Although few would disagree with the social justice argument that offering everyone equal opportunity is the right and fair thing to do, it remains frustrating how reliant we are on the business case to actually make change happen.

How does the UK compare to other countries? A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, education, health and political criteria. Overall, the UK is ranked at number 20 out of 144 countries benchmarked. Included above us are the Nordic countries, New Zealand, Rwanda, Namibia and South Africa. Although scoring much lower on the categories of health and survival and educational attainment, Rwanda scored highly on female economic participation and on political empowerment, having the highest share of female members of parliament across all countries.

Looking at our position within the subcategory of economic participation and opportunity, we’re at number 53. We’re lagging behind 48 other countries when it comes to labour force participation and behind 92 other countries on the gender parity of estimated earned income. Having a level playing field with equality of opportunity needs to be a greater national and business priority. A study by McKinsey at the end of last year estimates that: ‘Bridging the UK gender gap in work has the potential to create an extra £150 billion on top of business-as-usual GDP forecasts in 2025, and could translate into 840,000 additional female employees’.

Those employers already taking action to make their workplaces attractive to people irrespective of identity are going to be on the front foot when it comes to attracting, engaging and retaining people from a broader talent pool. Having a diverse workforce who feel included and valued could help your business have a better understanding of your customers’ needs, appeal to a more diverse customer base and discover new market opportunities. And most importantly, it’s also about your reputation as a great place to work that genuinely lives and breathes equal opportunity and fairness. At an economic level, the under-utilisation of skills is a key issue we need to tackle to address the UK productivity gap.

So what can employers do now to level the playing field – and do so sustainably?

1. Understand the informal messages women see about progression in your organisation
When we’re thinking about joining an organisation or considering whether to stay with an employer, we often look to see whether ‘people like you’ are succeeding there. Therefore, it’s important to consider the informal cues employees and candidates are getting about how inclusive the organisation is. Are women visibly represented at all levels? What feedback do you get from candidates and from exit interviews? Do you ask in your employee survey about intentions to stay or leave the organisation and the reasons why?

2. Don’t underestimate the power of role models
Women in senior roles can inspire the next generation of female leaders. Although we’ve seen an increase in the number of women in non-executive positions over the past few years, the gender balance in executive roles in many organisations remains off-kilter. That needs to change to send a much more powerful message to the workforce about female progression being achievable in that company.

However, when it comes to championing gender balance, we need both men and women to be positive ambassadors. A united front could speed up the pace of change and help create the level playing field. Gender balance and equality goes both ways - we can’t forget that there are certain female-heavy industries and sectors where the argument for a better gender balance requires more men.

3. Examine your HR data to take evidence-based action
To build sustainable talent pipelines, employers need to get to the grass roots of the issues in their particular organisation. This involves getting a clear understanding of the reasons why women are either not joining, progressing, or leaving the organisation. Can your HR data help you to identify any ‘cliff-edge’ points at which you’re losing female talent? What do you know about why women aren’t applying for certain roles? What can you learn from areas of the business that have a gender balance? With this evidence base you can identify where targeted action is needed and make change happen.

4. Develop an organisation-wide culture of flexibility
People are facing a whole myriad of situations outside of work that could pose a challenge to working in traditional ways. Whether it’s caring for relatives, a desire for a greater work-life balance, health issues, or childcare (which women are more likely to take on), the need for a more flexible approach to where and when we work is obvious.

Consider how your flexible working policy is actually being applied – is it viewed as being inclusive, or are informal norms at play? For example, to what extent are your employees aware of the right to request to work flexibly (whether they are parents and carers or not) and do people at all levels of seniority feel it’s open to them? Considering these kinds of questions can help to attract and retain female talent as well as, more broadly, workers who aren’t able to commit to traditional working hours.

Few people would disagree that enabling talented people to reach the top of their game is the right thing to do, irrespective of their identity. We need sustainable solutions to make female progression a matter of course. This isn’t about women advancing at the expense of men, this is about creating a level playing field where everyone has the opportunity to reach their potential at work. That’s got to be good for the individual, for the employer and for the economy.

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