DTT – Barriers to Female Attraction and Progression in Business

These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest Diversity Think Tank (DTT) held on Thursday 3rd April 2014 hosted by GE Capital’s Mary Fitzpatrick (Diversity Leader) titled ‘Barriers to Female Attraction and Progression in Business’.

The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR and Diversity professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.

Whilst businesses have come along way with regards to embracing equality in the work place, it seems there’s still a long way to go with regards to ensuring that career opportunities are as accessible for women as they are for men. After all, there’s certainly no disputing the case that surrounds utilising the power of women within business! So, what can organisations do to increase women’s involvement and exposure to the more senior positions and remove barriers that stand in the way of internal and external progression?

Work environment / structure

One of the most effective ways to facilitate a fair and productive work environment is to offer a degree of flexible working to enhance work / life balance. However, flexibility tends to mean something different to everyone! It might include flexi-hours, compressed working, job sharing, part time positions or home working. Basically anything that falls out of your traditional 9-5 / five days a week role. In principle, offering this scheme should enhance careers; however many women worry that success won’t be possible if they choose to embrace a degree of flexible working.

See below six key components to rolling out a successful flexible working scheme:

1.     Make it inclusive

Flexible working is often stigmatised as being ‘something for the mums’ and this is a label that businesses need to avoid if they want such a scheme to actually work. Where a specific job allows it, flexible working should be available to everyone – mums, dads, those caring for an elderly relative, millennials, baby boomers etc… so again, everyone! Businesses need to understand their workforce’s drivers for flexible working, respond with suitable solutions and normalise the practice so it’s appealing, accessible and acceptable for anyone to adopt it.

2.     Assess the roles that are applicable

When it comes to building a flexible working scheme, one of the recurring questions is always ‘which roles are eligible?’ The simplest way to address this is to get all line-managers to answer some key questions about the nature of their employee’s job in relation to the required output / productivity (Manager Initiative Flex). For example, ‘can they work from home?’, ‘can they work flexible hours?’, ‘do they need to be connected to a secure network point?’, ‘would this position work as a job share?’ etc. By following these guidelines, you’ll soon be able to build up a picture around which flexible options are available for all employees, whilst still ensuring business productivity.

3.     Create the appetite

The concept of flexible working is no good if it’s stowed away in an employee handbook and never actually brought to life! It needs to be embraced and embedded in the culture of the business. The focus of flexible working needs to be taken away from the concept of ‘it’s a nice thing to offer’ and be placed on the business relevance and impact it will have on overall productivity. Once managers have assessed the practicality of flexible working (Manager Initiative Flex), they should then be making sure their teams are aware of the options that are available to them.

4.     Set the scene

When it comes to embedding the culture of flexible working, often a practical solution is creating the right work environment / atmosphere. For instance, does your office have hot-desking areas, break out zones as opposed to long banks of fixed desks that will look strange if left empty as a result of home working?

5.     Measure success

With any business initiative it’s important to measure and determine the value of having it in place. One of the best ways to monitor effectiveness of flexible working is by asking some targeted questions within engagement surveys and combining these results with general productivity.

6.     Empower your employees

One of the biggest fears of rolling out a flexible working scheme is the concern that employees won’t perform under less supervised conditions. Ultimately it comes down to trust. This fear won’t go anywhere until you empower employees with trust to allow them to prove they can deliver. And in terms of policing, every role has success criterions and key objectives that need to be met – if your staff are meeting or exceeding business expectations, does if matter what time, where or when they carried out their work?

Attracting female talent

Being recognised as a destination female employer can be challenging if your business sits within a traditionally ‘masculine’ industry or is comprised by roles that are predominantly occupied by men. However from a talent attraction standpoint, what’s clear is, if you carry on doing the same thing, promoting the same message, recruiting in the same way nothing will ever change.

Enhance your external reputation

Getting recognised in the wider industry as a great employer of women is crucial. Affiliating your business with relevant employer awards or being a member of the 30 Percent Club are great ways of communicating to the candidate market that you’re committed to providing fair opportunities for women. Have you incorporated your diversity promise into your EVP and is this being reiterate to employees and candidates during the recruitment process?

Challenge stereotypes

As previously mentioned, there are certain jobs that aren’t typically popular for females – traders, engineers, asset managers etc. It’s the business’s responsibility to challenge these stereotypes through effective employer branding campaigns and recruitment drives to squash the perception that ‘females need not apply’.

Communicate to females in your job adverts

Without realising it many employers will write their job adverts with masculine language that unfortunately dissuades females from applying. Often the firm tone of objectives and essential criteria can deter a great female candidate from applying. Research has shown that men will tend to apply for jobs that are slightly above their ability; whereas women will only apply if they’re 100% sure they tick every box. Furthermore, as an employer that’s attempting to attract more females, if you offer a flexible working scheme or any other benefits that are likely to be of interest to women, include them in your adverts!

Developing female talent

When it comes to development programmes most businesses would agree that one size doesn’t fit all – seniority, performance, potential, role content will obviously all have a bearing on the required development, so why not gender?

Male and female confidence disparity

As alluded to above, females are more likely to self-exclude from opportunities if they’re not 100% confident of their ability to perform, which obviously also applies for internal promotion opportunities. It’s worth bearing in mind that women might need a greater vote of confidence or a ‘tap on the shoulder’ when it comes to developing within a business to avoid them slipping under the radar for opportunities that arise.

Female pipelining (internal and external)

Talent pipelining is incredibly important for avoiding recruiting from a standing-start and is equally applicable for putting in place a sustainable pipeline of women. Both internally and externally, organisations should be identifying females who could make a strong positive impact on the business (regardless of having a role in mind), network them internally and provide them with development opportunities to excel in the company. In-line with Jim Collins’ thinking, it’s about finding great people, getting them ‘on the bus without determining their seat’ and then working them into the business when the right opportunity arises.

Countering the barriers

In order to allow females to progress within your business, you need to truly understand the barriers that are currently preventing them from doing so – is it the role mechanics, a mind-set bias or a cultural problem?

Expose the problem

Diversity and inclusion as a whole doesn’t seem to be on the government’s agenda as it once was, and as a consequence many senior leaders don’t recognise that there’s a problem in their businesses. Specifically, gender equality seems to have taken a back seat and businesses are often unaware of the challenges faced by women when they’re looking to progress. Admitting a problem is always going to be the first step to addressing it.

Networking groups and career guidance

Offering employees support and a safe environment to discuss specific problems is going to make a big difference to their engagement levels and desire to remain at the company. Specialist internal networking groups are great outlets for preventing employees from feeling isolated and enabling them to integrate with like-minded individuals. Furthermore, providing a career clinic style outlet where employees can anonymously ask difficult questions about their career to a trusted advisor will also make a difference to staff retention rates.

Educating managers

Ensuring that line managers are on board with the importance of having a diversely representative workforce is key for ensuring the long-term success of D&I initiatives. Implementing mandatory training around D&I and unconscious bias will make a huge difference to the attraction and development of minority groups.

Long-term business success

In order to ensure the long-term success of any D&I initiative, it needs to have executive level sponsorship, be driven from the top down and be embraced by employees ‘on the ground’ to set the example. Agreeing a set of Diversity Goals with the senior management team is a great way to hold each part of the business accountable for achieving objectives and measure who isn’t being supportive. Including diversity targets in managers’ score cards is also incredibly effective, most businesses will find that unfortunately unless D&I affects bonuses, it won’t be taken as seriously.

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