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Equality Bill: Stifling women’s rise to the boardroom


Gender differencesDespite years of flexible working and child-friendly policies, women are still struggling to reach the boardroom and the proposed Equality Bill may make this rise to power even harder to achieve, says Judith Germain.

Designed to bring together nine major laws and over 100 regulations, the proposed Equality Bill means that companies will be free to discriminate in favour of women, however this will in fact do more harm than good when it comes to supporting career progression for women, especially in the current economic climate.

Why would this be the case?

The proposed Bill is designed to enable organisations to become more female-friendly thus encouraging more women to enter the workplace and to progress in their careers. Previous research had shown that women are choosing not to pursue careers in environments that are male dominated or highly pressured and perceived to be more suited to the male psyche.

The research infers (amongst other reasons) that this is because women are the primary child carers and therefore are required to be more flexible in their work arrangements for the sake of the family. This can have an adverse effect on their careers as they are invariably unavailable for informal gatherings outside core working hours. For example, regular drinks after work with key personnel responsible for your career progression remains one of the most effective ways to get to know key decision makers.

“Women are choosing not to pursue careers in environments that are male dominated or highly pressured and perceived to be more suited to the male psyche.”

Most companies provide limited support for flexible working, which can lead to women voluntarily opting out of roles that might present a conflict between career progression and a growing family.

The potential loss of this talent, especially now, is likely to have an adverse effect on the productivity and profitability of organisations. Therefore legislation designed to make working life more comfortable for women should be roundly welcomed by the business community.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case, with small businesses fearful that this Bill will bring them to their knees, and larger companies mourning the increased cost and potential loss of productivity from employees who cannot take advantage of the new arrangements.

A difficult climb to the top

The proposed changes allowing positive discrimination of women and the right to request flexible working for parents of children under the age of 16, will in fact make it harder not easier for women to climb the career ladder. This will be especially true for those in management positions or who work in smaller businesses.

Other than the additional costs and uncertainty of when a return on investment will be received, employers may face resentment from employees who feel that the Bill gives entitlement to some people and not others. Non-parents, for example, might like flexible working and may believe that they will have to pick up the slack from parents who are working more favourable hours.

The UK workforce enjoys a strong tradition of fair play and the concept of positive discrimination and extended flexible rights for parents strikes at the very root of this convention. Since the early 90s, employers have moved to rewarding internal jobs based on performance reviews, awarding the best candidate (internal or external) the role based on merit.

Finally, after years of employees expecting promotion or salary increases based on length of service and the old boys’ network, a real move towards success based on merit has been achieved. The subtle nature of the intricacies of the Bill (especially regarding positive discrimination) will be lost on the average employee. An assumption that a senior woman was hired because she is a woman can undermine any authority or respect that she was hoping to garner. The likelihood of increased litigation from potential and existing employees who wish to challenge an appointment because they do not believe that they were positively discriminated against will not endear them to their employers.

Too many contrary laws

The right to request flexible working arrangements for parents with children under the age of 16 does of course apply equally to women and men. In reality there will be more women than men requesting to alter their working arrangements. This will add to the growing perception that there are too many family-friendly laws which run contrary to business.

“Last year Sir Alan Sugar warned that current equality laws were ‘counter productive to women’ and would make it harder for women to get jobs.”

Most employees believe that there is little real need for parents to have altered working arrangements when they have healthy children over the age of five. This is likely to lead to jealousy and/or resentment especially if non-parents wish to have more suitable working arrangements themselves and are denied in favour of providing arrangements to parents.

Managers may perceive that they are being forced to pamper to the whims of parents, a sentiment mirrored by Sir Alan Sugar earlier last year when he warned that current equality laws were “counter productive to women” and would make it harder for women to get jobs.

Whilst the new Bill is designed to boost the proportion of female staff into senior positions, this doesn’t then remove the barriers once they are there. The first battle that employers face is one of perception on the new Bill rather than actuality.

There may be a potential backlash from other employees who feel that women in senior positions don’t deserve to be in the position they are in and are only there because of their gender. As a result, they will receive little respect from the employees they should be managing, something which will be extremely detrimental to their success in the organisation and could put their future career at risk.

Judith Germain is managing director of Dynamic Transitions, a leadership company specialising in working with Troublesome Talent® and improving leadership performance and trust within organisations.

2 Responses

  1. Perception is the biggest blocker
    and will probably remain so whilst the subtleties of the right to positively discriminate or request flexible working is misunderstood. Many companies still find it difficult to integrate flexible working arrangements and coupled with poor communication or little strategic understanding by managers, the potential benefits to employers are lost. Without employers actively educating their workforce, those that take advantage of their legal rights may find their career hampered and subject to resentment from their colleagues who feel that they have been provided with opportunities that they couldn’t access. This adverse effect to business is extremely damaging especially in the current economic climate.

  2. Focus on outputs and breaking down outdated perceptions
    In a world where flexibility is almost mandatory to survival I am dismayed to read an article which perpetrates outdated notions around flexible working and women. It is not true the companies provide limited support for flexible working, but it is certainly true that perceptions among employees that this is a privilege extended to only some results in women (and men) being reluctant to ask.
    With a well designed performance management system based on outputs not presenteeism, there should be no uncertainty about returns on investment, nor any additional costs. Flexibility does not equate with reduced hours, simply different ways of working. And indeed some of these (such as home or remote working) can actually reduce an employer’s overhead costs.
    Nor is it true that parents of children over the age of 5 don’t need flexibility. Key points arise around the transition to secondary school at age 11 and in the period when teenagers are deciding on GCSE topics and future careers. An element of flexibility for parents so they can provide support for children during these times will produce positive results beneficial to the wider society.
    And finally, the old chestnut about women being promoted simply because they are women. It’s not a new belief. There are lots of successful senior women who are still seen as “tokens” to satisfy equality laws. Human beings will always find reasons to justify envy and senior women simply learn to live with it. Suggesting it can undermine a woman’s authority compounds the denial of her abilities. If she’s good enough to be promoted, she’ll find a way to make it work!

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