This week’s criticism by the Women and Equalities Committee of the Government’s approach to the gender pay gap highlighted some of the structural problems that hold women back at work.

The response drew attention to three areas: flexible working, Shared Parental Leave and women returners and called for the Government to promote flexible working as the default option, for three months’ non-transferable paternity leave rather than leaving it to the mother to “share” her leave and for a national scheme to help women over 40 back to work.

The Committee expressed disappointment that the Government seems satisfied that it is doing enough in these areas. This is despite evidence of very low take-up of Shared Parental Leave, complaints about examples of bad practice around flexible working and huge difficulties faced by many women returners.

However, a number of employers are pushing this agenda forward and see big advantages in doing so, not just in terms of diversity, but because they recognise that these are issues that many of their employees are going to confront at some stage in their career and that to ignore them and hope they will go away is unrealistic and risks a haemorrhaging of talent.

So what are they doing? A recent roundtable event, held by and hosted by Lloyds Banking Group, looked at the latest thinking on flexible working, family support and women’s career progression. A white paper on the event shows that employers feel the default to the status quo is something that has to be challenged continuously in order for long-term progress to be made. It is all too easy, they said, for advances to be made with regard to flexible working only for a line manager to change and turn things back to a more rigid style of working.

Nineteen of the UK’s largest employers took part in the roundtable, exchanging views about their successes and the challenges they still face in building a more equal, diverse workplace.

They highlighted a range of issues, including the need for positive role modelling of flexible working by senior managers, for flexible working to be embedded from recruitment onwards and monitored carefully and for a focus on job design to ensure workloads and expectations are manageable. Apart from a need to support and bring line managers on board, for instance, through trialling flexible working in one area to demonstrate the advantages to more reluctant leaders or formally recognising those managers who successfully implement flexible working, there was also discussion of how to make sure remote workers feel less isolated.

Creating forums for senior managers to sponsor more junior workers could help keep remote workers front of mind, for instance. Sponsors – who advocate for sponsees – were key to women’s career advancement too. One employer stated that women tended to be overmentored and undersponsored and, unlike men, often didn’t have anyone proactively speaking up for them, for example, with regard to promotion opportunities.  One employer, Sky has made a lot of progress in getting more women into its senior ranks and spoke about how it had sought to artificially build that sponsor relationship for women. They got each executive area to nominate a high potential woman, got to know the woman and her career aspirations and matched them with a sponsor. The programme was mandatory for the executives who acted as sponsors, but they could opt out if they wanted to.

The roundtable also debated the importance of including men in all family support initiatives, spreading good practice on Shared Parental Leave and on job sharing, sustaining unconscious bias programmes and tackling recruiter bias to ensure more women are on shortlists.

There was an emphasis on how a truly inclusive culture needs to taken into account the fact that there is not one set career path and that people may seek to advance their careers at different times in their working lives.

One thing that came through loud and clear from the roundtable was that employers want to hear how others are tackling some of these difficult issues because they recognise how central they are to talent attraction and retention. One HR executive said that she had not come across such a willingness to share information about any other business issue in the past. Businesses realise that it is in their interests to do so and to find solutions for one of the biggest workplace challenges of the 21st century.


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