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Nicola Hodson

Microsoft UK

General Manager For The Public Sector

Read more about Nicola Hodson

Talking Point: Why are there still so few women in the workplace?

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Once upon a time, real work was for men and women were expected to stay at home and look after the wellbeing of their families.

If anything, they were regarded as the ‘silent reserve’ of the labour market.

In the 21st century, however, policy makers and businesses no longer need the devastating impact of the World Wars in order to activate the female labour reserve in Europe. Well-educated women, who have outpaced their male peers with excellent degrees, are starting to speak up and claim their place at the top table.
 
At the same time, a greying workforce is putting pressure on the economy and society to support women when they want to forge ahead with a career rather than step back once their first child is born. By 2030, the EU’s ageing demographics mean that one million workers a year will be lost to the labour pool.
 
Some studies even suggest that by 2050, one in three EU citizens will be over the age of 65 and that 20 million skilled jobs will stand vacant.
 
So the fact is that, if we want Europe to remain competitive and retain our quality of work and life, we simply cannot afford for women with children not to work if they want to.
 
Why are so few women in the workplace?
 
In 2012, we are still a long way away from women comprising an equal share of the workforce. Even though  fermale employment rates have increased, they are still significantly lower than those of men. According to Eurostat figures, across the EU27 region, male employment stood on average at 70.1% in 2010 compared with only 58.2% of women.
 
The gap is even more pronounced in southern European countries such as Greece (70.9% male to 48.1% female employment) and Italy (67.7% male to 46.1% female employment rate). The Nordic countries, on the whole, have a significantly lower gender employment gap, however.
 
The main reason for the lower employment rate among women relates childcare – for example, 75% of mothers in Spain only go back to work eight years after childbirth (OECD Better Life Index). Within OECD countries, less than 50% of women with children under the age of three are in paid work, rising to just 62% when children enter school.
 
In Europe, again only the Nordics and Switzerland stand out for their higher employment rates among women with children (nearly 80%).
 
This scenario indicates that European women still encounter huge difficulties when trying to balance their career and family life. Therefore, it is is not surprising that many working mums choose to work on a part-time basis – often with a significant impact on their careers.
 
But it seems that the Nordic countries are the North Star – or  guiding light – for a new world of work. Looking more closely at their working environments, it appears that a flexible working culture, which has been a common practice in these countries for decades, is a key factor in relation to high female employment.
 
Flexible working is based on two key elements, which fit very well with the Nordic approach: a culture of trust and empowerment and the early adoption of technologies. The combination of these factors makes the practice of working 9-to-5 in the office unnecessary for many knowledge workers as it is possible to simply work from anywhere at anytime.
 
Flexible working for all
 
The rapid adoption of mobile technologies and cloud computing-based services means that we have now reached a point where flexible working in Europe could start to become standard for many workers. But this is still not the case in reality – and even less so for women than men.
 
A recent survey commissioned by my employer reveals that 43% of females have never worked away from the office. In contrast, 71% of males have done so, at least on occasion. This situation would appear to imply that flexible working is still not a common practice in many European organisations.
 
On the contrary, it appears to remain a privilege for ‘knowledge worker’ elites and is seen as an incentive for high-performers and people in senior roles, many of whom are male.
 
But if we are to increase the number of women with children who are in full-time employment as well as the amount of female talent in top positions, we need to make flexible working more widespread.
 
Working for a software company, I am in the lucky position that working anywhere at any time is fully enabled by the latest technology. So there is no question about me picking up my kids from school to take them to their sports days and parents’ evenings – even though I work full-time, I can continue to undertake some of my work from home.
 
None of my colleagues comment if I leave the office ‘early’ because there is a mutual trust that staff are most productive if they define when and where they want to work. My boss is only interested in the results that I deliver, not whether I am in the office or not.
 
Without this flexibility and trust, I doubt I would be as happy in my career. Technology opens the door to a new way of working, but a corporate culture built on trust is a non-negotiable prerequisite to bring it to life.
 
 
Nicola Hodson, general manager for the public sector at software vendor, Microsoft UK, which is a backer of the Anywhere Working initiative to encourage the adoption of flexible working practices.
 
This article was first carried by our sister publication, www.Publictechnology.net.
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Nicola Hodson

General Manager For The Public Sector

Read more from Nicola Hodson