Last month, I took the train up to the beautiful city of Cambridge to speak at their Gender Summit. Over the course of the day, and with the help of a varied panel of business and academic speakers, we explored what it takes to promote gender equality and diversity within organisations. We debated a wide range of themes, from the impact of corporate governance structures on gender policies to the practical steps for increasing the number of female applications for the best jobs. The strength of the debate revealed how much opinion is still divided on this issue, and the wealth of research still to be done. As I travelled home, I reflected on the themes we had covered and found that five questions in particular deserved further research:
1. What are organisations doing to change attitudes to fatherhood?
Throughout the day, we touched on the complexity of balancing working life with being a mum, and the emotional and physical exhaustion that can result from ‘trying to have it all.’ It seemed that the problem wasn’t trying to have it all, but trying to do it all. Women continue to be the primary care givers at home despite taking on more responsibility in the world of work. One of the reasons behind this is that the concept of fatherhood has remained quite static over the last thirty years, with short paternity leave entitlements and a continued focus on being the main breadwinner. To really achieve gender equality in the workplace, we must also work on achieving it in the home.
2. How can women operate in male dominated senior networks?
Women are still drastically under-represented at the senior level, at around 17% of all members of FTSE 100 boards and senior executive teams. The result is male-dominated senior networks that are incredibly difficult to penetrate if you are an ambitious woman. So, whom do women end up networking with if they are not easily accepted in the male-dominated elite circles? All too often, the answer is other women more junior than them who can’t help them advance their career. To get more representation of women at the top, we need to ensure they have access to influential senior networks.
3. Are quotas useful?
Norway has pioneered the quota approach to bringing women into the boardroom and now has 40% female representation at board level. However, this has resulted in some negative labelling of these new appointees as ‘golden petticoats’, promoted to tick a box rather than as a reflection of their talent. So, what is the answer? In my opinion, quotas are still essential in getting women to the top. By forcing the distribution, we can get women networking with the right people and can begin liberating men to take more responsibility in the home.
4. How can people bring their best selves to work?
An emerging theme in management thinking is how to encourage your employees to be the best they can be at work. This requires more than just generous compensation packages; it means that working life must be tailored to individuals by acknowledging their interests, concerns and commitments. In particular, women can’t be their best selves at work if they are distracted with family obligations they are neglecting while building their careers. Organisations must invest time in understanding their employees’ needs and building more tailored arrangements to cater to them.
5. How can we move beyond narrow categorisations of women?
In my blog on May 22nd I talked about how we continue to categorise women leaders by their personal circumstance rather than their goals and ideals. These women are far more heterogeneous in their backgrounds and outlook than many of their male peers, however they are often classified according to whether or not they are married, how many children they have and what kind of mother they are. These narrow categorisations fail to recognise the real difference these women are bringing to the world of work. To truly embrace diversity we must first be able to appreciate difference.
This year I launched an Inclusion and Diversity Research Consortium to bring organisations together to provide answers to these questions. We’re hearing some very interesting insights that I look forward to sharing with you in the coming months.