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Jane Kirk

Armstrong Craven


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International Women’s Day: Making gender diversity a workplace reality


 The aim of International Women’s Day today is to inspire women, celebrate their achievements and find ways of creating brighter and more rewarding opportunities for future generations. 

But in terms of the workplace, just how far has gender diversity actually come?
The media is full of reports about the need for greater female equality. The publication of the Davies Report last year, for example, generated much debate on the topic, ranging from arguments for and against the need for positive interventions such as boardroom quotas.  
Statistics show that the number of women becoming directors of FTSE 100 companies has risen steadily over the last year, hitting 164 in November 2011, which is close to the 15% target stipulated in the Davies Report.   
Moreover, some 22.5% of all new appointments to FTSE 100 boardrooms have been women, up from 13% in 2010. At the same time, the number of all-male boards has dropped from 21 to 14 and they are, in fact, in a minority among FTSE 250 companies for the first time. 
But while such progress is encouraging, the fact remains that women still continue to be under-represented at senior management level and across many industry sectors. Therefore, to stimulate real change, it would appear that employers need to reassess their approach to developing female leadership talent and put plans in place to redress the current imbalance.
To this end, candidate shortlists for any new position should always include women. If they do not, the organisation could miss out on vital experience and genuine business benefits. An important first step in this direction, however, is to establish what is happening in the market place.
Strategic change
Undertaking targeted research can help to establish:
  • Key motivators for potential female candidates
  • How these women perceive your organisation
  • How competitors engage with female talent.
Analysing this intelligence will help you to establish what professional women are looking for in a future employer and develop a suitable recruitment strategy to target and attract them. All corporate communications should also consistently include messages, images and positioning statements that resonate with women.
This kind of strategic and behavioural change will not only benefit external recruitment activity by helping to establish a more effective dialogue with potential candidates. It should also encourage and motivate your existing female employees to progress within the company, thus creating a potential pipeline of future talent.   
As Mary FitzPatrick, diversity leader at GE Capital for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, points out: “Having a great reputation as an employer that values women is really important to us as we believe that it is the right thing to do.”
Another point to consider is that, although more females than males graduate from university, the former make up a much smaller part of the workforce. Studies show that many women tend to leave the labour market mid-career, which coincides with the usual time to take maternity leave. 
Major obstacles for them staying in work include issues around working flexible or reduced hours. Another key problem is that many employers have conscious or unconscious biases against the perceived commitment levels of part-time workers – whether female or male.
This means that it is important to put strategies in place in order to address these potentially divisive matters. But on the plus side, Karen Williams, a director at executive search and professional development firm, Spectrum Consulting, says that the introduction of a flexible working policy has “allowed us to hire some experienced and talented women who don’t necessarily want to work full time in central London”.
The need to adapt
Sue Macdonald, head of organisational development at housing and regeneration organisation, Midland Heart, also believes: “Flexible working is extremely important and forms a key component of our wellbeing strategy to help our people achieve a healthy balance between work and personal commitments.”
But all too often organisations simply do not have appropriate mechanisms in place to enable women working flexibly or under reduced hour contracts to develop their careers at the same pace as other personnel. After a career break, even the most talented may have to accept a sideways move or demotion in order to work part-time.
But this situation in itself can prove a risky business. Not all managers are equipped to deal with employees who are more experienced than themselves without feeling threatened while, on the other hand, it requires a certain maturity to report into someone with less expertise simply because they work full-time.
But this failure of many mainstream employers to adapt in order to meet the requirements of women with family commitments has led to some of the most talented – the so-called ‘Blackberry Mums’ – setting up their own businesses.
To prevent this situation from taking place, it is important, therefore, that employers both devise new ways of working and come up with development programmes that will result in female talent continuing to be challenged and motivated.
There also needs to be a clear structure for career progression that does not end up being restricted by corporate culture or the decision to have children. But it is also vital that any changes to current practices be evaluated and measured as only then will you know if your initiatives are achieving their objectives.
Don’t expect immediate results, however – changing policies and procedures takes time, but it will deliver beneficial outcomes for the business as a whole in the end.

Jane Kirk is a partner at executive search company, Armstrong Craven, part of Work Group Plc.
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Jane Kirk


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