Gender diversity is important for everyone
Are employers ready to make the most of all their workers' skills in the coming years?
In terms of women it is clear that there are a variety of changes which could ensure that they are more able to reach their potential. They include changes to workplace culture, such as flexible working and a recognition of inherent biases which impede women's career progression.
An extensive survey by the University of Cambridge's Murray Edwards College showed that workplace culture was a bigger barrier to women's progression than having a family.
So how do we change workplace culture and what are the barriers to doing so?
One thing to note is that many employers understand the need for greater equality at work and that greater diversity is good for their bottom line. A Workingmums.co.uk survey of employers out this week shows that there is huge support for legislation such as gender pay audits that shine a light on pay inequality.
Some 86% of 220 employers polled were positive about the audits which come into effect in April for employers of 250 or more people and mean they will have to publish data regarding the gender pay gap in their organisation.
Support was high across the board, but in sectors such as engineering and banking it was at 93%. This is despite criticism that publication of the bare statistics could lead to a name and shame culture.
However, if the gender pay data is properly contextualised, the hope is that it will provoke wider discussion of the complex issues that lie behind any gaps - from lack of career progression for women who work flexibly to the gender bias of different sectors.
The survey provided a snapshot of some of those issues and some of the challenges as well as future trends.
For one, while some employers, particularly the smallest, are very agile, it suggests those in the middle may be struggling. While only 14% of employers with between 500 and 1,000 employees felt they had a flexible culture, 61% of those with over 1,000 employees and 89% of those with under six employees did.
Those employers who didn’t have a flexible culture blamed a range of factors from lack of trust, “archaic attitudes” and managers’ concerns about creating precedents to managing workloads with staff working reduced hours, communicating policies to clients and managing expectations.
Yet most anticipate greater demand for flexible working, particularly from men. The number of employers seeing an increase in requests from men in recent months ranged from 25% [employers with between 50 and 100 employees] to 75% in those with between 500 and 1,000 staff.
What will be important is having a work culture that can absorb those demands and not one that responds to flexible working requests on an ad hoc basis. Another factor that will be vital is addressing the idea that part-time working is a career cul-de-sac.
One way around the lack of senior managers working part time is job shares and interestingly, although only a third had job shares in place with larger employers more likely to have them, 70% of employers said they would be keen to consider them.
There was a similar growing interest in initiatives for returners - those who have taken a career break, possibly for family reasons, who are looking to return to the workplace.
And what of all the women's networks, mentoring and leadership forums? Jill Armstrong, Murray Edwards' research associate who is following up their research with workshops on workplace culture change, says these can be effective, but will not on their own bring the large-scale transformation necessary to create a more equal workplace.
What is also interesting from the survey is that many employers who do have such initiatives don't actually measure their success. It may be that they feel it is difficult to quantify what success would mean, but it is surely important to hear from women who have been on such initiatives whether they think they have made a difference and if not, what could be done to improve them.
For Armstrong, there needs to be a deeper root and branch analysis of how the workplace functions, including issues such as whether women are heard in meetings; different reactions to the same behaviour by women and men; benevolent sexism; male-dominated informal networks and their impact on decision-making; and access to opportunities to work on prestigious projects and sponsorship. Moreover, that analysis needs to include everyone in the workplace in the conversation, not just women. “[Gender] diversity is still very much seen as a women’s issue,” she says. “Until it is seen as an issue for all, things will not shift.”