Saturday 8th March is International Women’s Day (IWD) but it’s debatable whether the UK’s working women will have much to celebrate. Earlier this week PwC revealed that while it’s made progress in narrowing the gender wage gap and increasing female labour participation, the UK still languishes at 18th in an index of 27 OECD countries when it comes to empowering women at work. The Telegraph, meanwhile, reported research revealing “gender discrimination [in workplaces] is still as prevalent in the UK as it was 20 years ago”.
Women’s career patterns have always been different from men’s. In the early part of the last century women were often expected to stop working on marriage. But by the 1960s and 70s, the growing demand for workers resulted in employers enticing mothers back to work – often on part-time arrangements to accommodate caring responsibilities. Fast forward to the 21st Century and little appears to have changed in the workplace.
When it comes to work-life balance, women approach the matter differently from men. Both anecdotal evidence and a number of recent surveys suggest one of the key reasons women step off the corporate career ladder is to “achieve better balance”. And ONS statistics suggest reducing her hours is the most likely strategy for a woman to take – even at senior levels. At the same time, many organisations continue to operate with practices and cultures established in the early 20th Century. Ones with an expectation an employee’s only commitments are to the workplace and someone else is providing family support.
This year’s IWD theme is Inspiring Change and there’s never been a better time for HR specialists to inspire change that results in corporate cultures and working practices fit for the 21st century. I’ve put together a booklet (downloadable from my website) listing ten ideas for starters. Of these, in my opinion the top three are:
1. Redesigning full-time jobs for flexibility of time and place. This will require a clear focus in outputs (see point 2 below) and is likely to result in greater productivity, efficiency and people feeling they’re being treated as adults. Based on 20 years’ experience I’ve developed a four stage process for redesigning full-time jobs that support both agile working and better balance.
2. Reviewing HR processes to ensure a clear focus on outputs. This is likely to increase in importance as organisations adopt more flexible working arrangements and continue to hire a more contingent workforce. Your review should include not only Appraisal/Performance Management documentation, but also job descriptions and promotion practices. Make sure you’re managing and developing female talent in ways that bring out the best in them regardless of life stage.
3. Recommitting to being an employer of choice for women at all organisational levels and acting on that intent. This includes identifying and publicising role models – particularly senior women working flexibly (and even better, being promoted while they do so); challenging assumptions about how work should be done; supporting managers to ensure they have the necessary skills for managing flexible workers; and challenging expectations about how career progression works.
Someone once said to me “change happens best when nobody notices” while the poster on my wall reminds me that “small changes add up”. We can all inspire change by taking small steps gradually over time. And it seems to me, given that HR tends to be a female-dominated profession, we might also approach the matter with a degree of enlightened self-interest. Not only will we be supporting other women, we may well be smoothing the way in our own careers. Making changes that result in better utilisation of female talent surely makes good business sense.
About AJ Meller
Anna Meller has spent the last 20 years making work-life integration her business. A successful consultant, thought leader, researcher and author, Anna’s accessible approach is both evidence based and pragmatic.