Is gender equality achievable in the workplace?

7 Mins

The lack of women in senior positions in both government and business has been a much discussed issue for some time. However, with the exception of the publication of Lord Davies’ ‘Women on Boards‘ report in 2011, it is debatable whether anything of any real substance has been done to address the crux of the problem over the past decade.

In fact, the whole subject throws up a range of conflicting evidence. The number of women directors on FTSE 100 boards has risen from 15 per cent in 2011 to just below 23 per cent in September 2014, according to the Professional Boards Forum BoardWatch. Although still slightly short of the 25 per cent target set for 2015, these figures are encouraging. 

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Less encouraging is the news that Britain failed to make the top 20 in the 2014 Global Gender Gap survey carried out by the World Economic Forum. In fact, the UK placing fell eight places to 26th, surprisingly lagging behind countries such as Nicaragua, Burundi and Rwanda. Perhaps less surprising was the high placing of the Nordic countries with Iceland, Finland and Norway topping the list in first, second and third place respectively. 

Quotas in action

Norway is no stranger to the gender debate, having been the first country to make gender quotas a legal obligation, The quota issue and its impact in Norway was the subject of a recent debate in London hosted by the Norwegian-British Chamber of Commerce where the consensus seemed to be operational competence and performance had been unaffected by the implementation of the quota law. It was also suggested that the improved gender balance has created a wider pool of talent with greater cultural diversity.

But before we rush to adopt the Norwegian model, it’s important to appreciate the differing starting points between the two countries. The relative success of the system in Norway built on decades of fundamental differences in how the Nordic society thinks and behaves in relation to men, women and families. 

Whatever decisions are made about quotas, targets or other measures, all businesses need to address their contribution to the equality issue and how that can influence their future prosperity. Ultimately, the balance, well-being and satisfaction of the people you employ are all factors that have a significant impact on the success of any business.

It’s all about engagement

In my own experience of working with women in demanding jobs there are certain issues which seem to recur. For example, employers may “help” by creating less demanding roles for women with young children to return to. However, this can lead to boredom, frustration and lack of engagement in the job. It also means that an individual will be unprepared for future progression in line with their capability. 

Every working mother I have worked with has experienced a major confidence dip post-children, but very few feel able to acknowledge this, or its impact in the workplace. Equally, any woman over 30 (with or without children) is aware of the unasked question – are you planning to have a child? – and the potential impact the answer could have on her career.

However, the issue isn’t just about women leaving to have children: increasing numbers of successful women at the top of their careers leave because they no longer have a passion for their role. Engagement is a vital factor for the female psyche – and increasingly for men too. People now seem more concerned with creating the right lifestyle as opposed to achieving glittering careers which demand 60 hour working weeks. This means that organisations need to look at different employment models, offering options such as flexible hours, job shares; home working or results based contracts with no standard hours at all. 

Whatever the gender, don’t make assumptions about individuals’ aspirations – encourage open dialogue and commit to developing them to the maximum of their potential. Both genders have much to offer – but need to be given the opportunities and support to develop that potential. 

Whatever your view and whatever the reasons, it’s impossible to deny the fact that women in business are under-represented at senior levels. Unfortunately, this situation is likely to perpetuate the classic vicious circle. Until we bring about a fundamental shift in attitudes, accept that men and women behave and think differently and embrace this diversity, achieving significant long term change will be difficult. It’s also important to remember that although we may be close to meeting Lord Davies’ 25 per cent target, 50 per cent of the population are female and until we close that gap, women will continue to lack a voice in the boardroom.

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss Real Business’s First Women programme:

Drawing on ten years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit – designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.

Helen Croft is an executive business coach and a partner at The Results Centre.

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