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Alexis Asher

SA Law


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How to foster female talent


In December 2013 it was announced that Mary Barra will become the first female Chief Executive of General Motors. This move signifies an important change in corporate attitudes towards women in business, but why is it that the appointment of women in senior positions seems to remain the exception rather than the norm?

One factor that certainly does not assist women in business is traditional prejudices about women being ruled by their biological clocks – likely to ‘jump ship’ when the opportunity arises to start a family. This attitude was expressed by UKIP leader Nigel Farage earlier this month when he commented that women who take time off work to have a family are “worth less” to City employers. Whilst his statement has been met with criticism, it is this kind of stance that encourages reluctance amongst both small and large businesses to put women at the forefront of boards and management.

A business’ Human Resources (“HR”) team have a key role to play in shifting attitudes in the workplace. Through ensuring that family-friendly policies are both implemented and adhered to, HR can seek to manage both the stance of management and employees. Equality and diversity training can also play an important role.

Another key area is pay. Employers should ensure that women are being paid the same as male colleagues, undertaking like work. In 2013, a Tribunal upheld claims by Isabel Sitz against her former employer Oppenheimer of sex discrimination, victimisation and unfair dismissal. Bosses began to marginalise Ms Sitz’s role by removing key clients from her, resulting in a drop in revenue she was able to produce. The investment bank then slashed her £95,000 salary to £6.08 per hour. When she complained, she was dismissed. The amount of her award has not yet been disclosed, but is likely to be substantial.

In terms of maternity leave and pay, an employer is obliged to comply only with minimum statutory requirements. However, offering an enhanced payment may increase an employee’s feeling of value, and encourage her to return to the business after her period of leave. Having policies in place which cover an employee’s statutory ability to make a flexible working request will also encourage those that want to return on varied working hours, and make it clear that the business welcomes the return of key employees following the period of leave. If a company can demonstrate flexibility as far as possible, this will increase feelings of goodwill and consequently motivate employees in their work.

Should employers not take maternity entitlements and flexible working requests seriously, they run the risk of employees raising grievances, and possibly even claims of sex discrimination. Whilst there are currently eight business grounds upon which an employer can reject an employee’s request to work flexibly, a great number of claims of sex discrimination have been brought, focusing on an employer’s failure to agree an amended work pattern.

Treating women less favourably due to pregnancy can also result in expensive litigation. Katie Tantum won her claim of sex discrimination against law firm Travers Smith in 2013, when she was denied a permanent role after becoming pregnant during the final seat of her training contract. The Tribunal upheld Ms Tantum’s claim that the firm reduced the number of available full time positions in a specific department, once she disclosed her pregnancy.

The Government is in the process of consulting on an extension to the right to request flexible working to all employees with 26 weeks’ service, rather than just those employees who qualify as parents or carers. These changes were expected to be implemented in April 2014 (although have now been delayed).  When implemented, employers will no longer be required to follow the statutory procedure regarding flexible working requests. They will, however, still be obliged to give reasonable consideration to any request.

There are also proposals to introduce a new system of shared parental leave and pay. Eligible employees will be entitled to a maximum of 52 weeks’ leave and 39 weeks’ statutory pay upon the birth or adoption of a child, which can be shared between the parents. This is also intended to apply to adoptive parents and those who use surrogacy arrangements. It is anticipated that this system will come into effect in 2015.

It is expected that these new measures will assist in relieving pressure upon women. By offering the ability to share leave between partners, it will no longer be solely the woman that is perceived as being out of the business for a lengthy period of time. Whilst legislative measures may help, the larger issue appears to be shifting the perception of women in business, and changing outdated attitudes that somehow women have less to offer. This is a more difficult task, but one which can be achieved through a respectful work environment and educating all staff on the value of each individual.

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Alexis Asher


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