Everywhere I turn the debate about getting more women into British boardrooms continues. This week we learnt the government is building a team of allies to fight the EU’s proposed introduction of mandatory quotas. Last week BBC2 aired the second part of Dragons’ Den entrepreneur Hilary Devey’s investigation into why so few women reach the highest corporate levels.
The financial implications for UK businesses of failing to exploit the skills of highly trained women are well documented. Agreement on whose role it is to change the current situation less so. I’m wondering why so little of the debate is being conducted in the HR arena – particularly given that ours tends to be a predominantly female profession.
Hilary got it right when she identified work-life balance challenges as one of the biggest barriers to female progression. And no amount of mentoring, coaching or building up a woman’s self-esteem is going to change things while she’s still expected to play by old rules that define what it means to be a good mother and what it means to be a committed employee.
In my experience, the single biggest factor that persuades professional women to "off ramp" is an inability to see how they might demonstrate an appropriate commitment to their work while taking primary responsibility for their children. Indeed, research has confirmed the prevalence of continuing unconscious bias in the workplace which holds that working mothers are neither good parents nor good employees.
Tackling unconscious bias can prove difficult, but given that organisations are constantly adapting to change, addressing outmoded and ineffective working practices that stand in the way of women’s progress should be a little easier. Despite massive changes in the nature of work, and the way it can be done, organisational practices developed half a century ago often remain unchallenged. Deeply embedded into organisational cultures, they continue to propagate the myth that people must choose between a career or a balanced life.
Perhaps the fault lies with the mistaken belief that in our turbulent economic times focusing on work-life balance is a luxury. Nothing could be further from the truth. Research evidence accumulated over the last thirty years confirms that good work-life balance supports good physical and mental health; and leads to more commitment and stronger engagement at work. How can we even begin to talk about sustainable organisations unless we look at sustaining the people that comprise them? What’s more, the evidence suggests that Generation X – those in the 35 to 50 age group poised to take over the reins of control in organisations – are looking for better balance than their Baby Boomer parents. This is true of both sexes.
In recent months I’ve come across a number of discussions on HR social networking sites around the question of why it’s so difficult to combine motherhood and work. Often driven by self-interest, contributors have predominantly been women facing the challenge themselves. The irony here is that we in the HR profession have the skills to change things, rather than spending time in endless discussion. Perhaps, as Elvis might once have said, it’s time for "a little less conversation, a little more action."
Monday 24th September marks the start of this year’s Work-Life Balance Week. What will you be doing to move the agenda forward?