Why the drive for #balanceforbetter is weighing heavier than ever

Why the drive for #balanceforbetter is weighing heavier than ever

I always encourage my clients to break down big goals into small actions. 

Bite off more than you can chew and you’re on a fast track to overwhelm and, well, probable failure. 

It’s consistent, small steps that build momentum and lead to big change.

Take the issue of gender equality, for instance. The fight will be won when all women are recruited, promoted and paid fairly and equally to men. 

But there are many smaller battles to win first. 

And there are no quick fixes. 

In fact, at the current rate, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Report 2018 estimates it will be another 202 years before we reach parity in the workforce.

Sounds depressingly slow, doesn’t it?

What’s more, stats like these from the BBC showing that the gender pay gap is growing at larger firms can make it seem like we’re taking a step backwards. But they also reveal that the median gender pay gap overall has improved since last year – from 9.7% to 8.4%.

Sharing knowledge and best practice across sectors is key to streamlining our efforts and speeding up process. 

So ahead of International Women’s Day on 2019, which calls for #balanceforbetter for a better working world, I spoke to some forward-thinking businesses in the legal, professional services and financial services to find out how they’re breaking down the goal of balance for all into bite-sized chunks. Ruth Elliot, Director of HR and Business Services & Clare Jones, Senior Manager HR and Business Services, at law firm Fladgate LLP, Deborah Stump, Partner and Director of HR at economic consulting firm, Oxera Consulting LLP and Kiran Sondhi, Head of HR at Allied Irish Bank (AIB) UK all told me about their trials, errors and successes along the way.

Start at the beginning

The recruitment process is a logical starting point and it’s an area many organisations are focusing on, like Fladgate LLP which employs 290 people.

Ruth Elliot says the aim is for Fladgate to increase its female partnership level to a minimum of 25% by 2020, a goal it is set to hit a year early. Its aspiration, Ruth says, is for the figure to be no less than 30% by 2025.

We’re putting our efforts into positioning ourselves as inclusive, so we have women involved in the recruitment process at all stages. That’s not just on an internal level – we also ensure that candidates introduced via our recruitment agencies are fairly represented by men and women.

We’re involved in market place forums and networks around leadership such as Women in Property and Women on Boards groups and parenting organisations, like City Parents,” she told me.

Oxera Consulting has been working on improving rigour in its graduate selection process over a number of years and on gaining clearer insight into the pool of candidates looking to join their staff of 180. Where possible, interviews are conducted by a gender-balanced panel. 

The process is continually tweaked and the data collected has resulted in big changes. 

We now have aptitude and psychometric tests which are shown to be free of bias,” says Deborah Stump, “We’ve been able to show that outcomes at each stage in our graduate process are gender neutral.

Two years ago, Oxera took its data to its preferred universities to open a dialogue about their cohort and it’s something they plan to do more of. “We’re not a big organisation,” Stump adds, “so we need to work with the places our people come from if we are really going to make a difference.”

It’s good to talk

Opening up the communication channels within organisations and collaborating with staff to get their feedback is vital. If the aim is inclusion – include your people! 

We’ve spoken to the women in our firm and asked them – what helps your career progression? What hinders you? What does a successful environment look like?” Kiran Sondhi, Head of HR at Allied Irish Bank (AIB) UK told me.

The data from this told us that sponsorship – having someone in your organisation with influence who is not your manager but can support you in your career path – could really benefit women. As a result, this is an area we’re focusing on as well as helping our leaders create more agile environments and offering more support to women returning from leave.”

A year ago, the company also introduced Empowering You to its 900 employees. The nine-month programme is aimed at helping people from all around the business to develop their confidence, work and life in a different way. It includes both men and women with a greater proportion of women.  

What’s the story?

Storytelling can be a powerful tool for creating a sense of inclusion when undergoing organisational change. It’s something Fladgate is experimenting with. 

Fireside chats were trialled and the feedback from those is being used to create further opportunities for colleagues to learn from each other’s experiences and life stories.

Although Elliot admits that there has been mixed feedback to the events, with some feeling the experiences were not relevant, it’s a useful exercise for openly addressing concerns and stimulating debate.

The company also invites leading businesswomen to give lunchtime talks. Speakers to date have included MD of fashion brand Amanda Wakeley, Ahyla Fateh, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Vodafone, Karina Govindji and Antonia Belcher who transitioned in a very male dominated environment and who talked about her different experiences as a man and as a woman, the impact on her family and her work for LGBTQ rights.

Balance for all

A truly balanced working environment requires a more holistic approach. Diversity of all kinds, not just gender, needs support and championing. 

Like many organisations, Fladgate employees are from a number of different generations and there’s a job to be done to understand the needs of each, Elliot argues. Recently, some of senior management were surprised to learn that money is not a prime motivator for generations Y & Z.

A man taking two months’ shared parental leave has opened their eyes to the idea that there are differing values among our people,” she says.

Balance should also be applied to different ways of working, giving all staff the freedom of flexibility. It’s something AIB is keen to get right, although there are practicalities to overcome.

We have smarter and agile working policies at AIB meaning we can work anywhere in the UK,” Sondhi explains, “In fact, in most cases, it’s encouraged to work from home”.  

“It’s difficult to achieve this with retail roles however, where colleagues are at the front line for the customer. So, there are still challenges but we’re determined to address them and are starting to see positive examples.”

Ladies first

Involving both sexes in the struggle for gender parity is essential. One of Fladgate’s male senior partners heads up I&D and has led the drive for equality, 

Sunil (Sheth) really pushes the female agenda, as well as wider I&D topics. He challenges the board and has been pivotal in making changes happen,” Elliot told me. 

And it’s a board that is achieving greater balance with the appointment of a new female head of department in April, doubling the number of women on the board to two. 

AIB has made a public commitment to increase its female representation in management to 50/50 by 2020 via their Women in Finance Charter. 

“It’s a commitment made by one of our most senior leaders and supported from the top. We’ve made some progress and are at 41% but there’s clearly more work to be done and it’s a focus for us.” 

For Oxera, having a visible female leader, like Dr Helen Jenkins helps to set the right tone. 

Having a strong female managing partner like Helen really helps. Inclusion is a personal passion of hers and mine,” says Stump.

Helen has an amazing reputation in our marketplace for her intellect and for the quality of her work. As Managing Partner, she still has a very active client portfolio which means people inside and outside Oxera get to see that capability in action.”

So what now?

All the businesses I spoke with are making great strides towards a #balanceforbetter but each recognises there is more to do.

For Oxera, it’s about a wider, cultural change. Although Stump is proud that Oxera’s gender pay report showed no skew amongst their economists, she’s the first to admit that the gender balance among staff is still off. In their business support teams, more men, she says, hold positions of authority.

We have a gender skew in our support career levels. It’s a wider problem that goes back to stereotypical views of who plays what role. It’s ok for men to work on IT helpdesks but not on reception, for example.

“Being the so-called breadwinner in my family, I have no time for those kinds of beliefs”.

Oxera is also working on its talent/gender balance as Stump explains, “Working with an external partner can help with both challenge and credibility. We have worked with a supplier, Inclusive Employers, on our recruitment processes, on interview training, and on psychological wellbeing. We’re planning further work with them on areas like our promotions criteria.

For AIB, it’s about being experimental and not being afraid to try new things: “Fail fast and learn, then move on!” is Sondhi’s motto. 

AIB also plans to explore its alumni pool to help address gender balance and “…consider other pools we’re not tapping into such as returnship programmes and refugee internships, for example.”

Like, Stump, she also recognises the need for a change in thinking.

We need to shift, shift, shift our culture and ensure it’s fit for purpose. At AIB, we ‘back our customers to achieve their dreams and ambitions’ and we need to do the same for our people, particularly where the balance is skewed.”

Fladgate is reviewing its senior roles and considering creating alternative positions to partner. “There’s an expectation that you will want to be a partner and earn lots of money,” Elliot explains, 

“But not everyone wants this.”. 

“So, our partner roles could become business development, fee-earner or people-focused rather than all of these areas being managed by one person.” 

We think it gives us the potential to create a more flexible workforce and opportunities.”

It’s clear from talking to these organisations and my experiences with my own clients that when it comes to gender parity, most are a work in progress which is to be expected. Achieving a #balanceforbetter involves a major overhaul of our processes, boardrooms, personal interactions and culture – no mean feat. 

There is lots of progress being made in the right direction that we can all learn from.

And while I believe we have to take it a step at a time, I also believe we can get there quicker.

So, the question remains: what improvements can we make to reach a #balanceforbetter faster? 

What lightbulb moments have you had in your organisation which have really made the difference?

Sharing our wins, however small, are key to paving the way to success. 

I’m passionate about helping businesses to achieve greater balance and I strongly believe that we have to keep talking, keep sharing and keep daring to try new things to speed up the journey.

My top recommendations are:

  • Story telling is a great way to communicate authentic personal experience which in turn creates compelling reasons for change. Hearing a personal story first hand and the detail within helps us to gain a greater understanding of differing viewpoints and needs, whatever our gender, age or position.

  • Embodying and encouraging diversity not just on your own shop floor, but also in the third parties you work with, really demonstrates that you ‘walk the walk’ and are extending your efforts beyond your own four walls. Challenge your suppliers if you don’t feel they’re going far enough. The same applies to external bodies in your industry. For example, could an organisation like the Law Society help enforce or set more robust progress expectations? We all have to challenge everyone in and outside our businesses and hold others accountable if we are to make real change.

  • Look closely at the commonalities and differences among your people, not just in terms of gender. Generations, for example, have different values. Baby boomers have a very different career progression to millennials. We need to understand these groups to have successful organisations and create a balanced workforce.

  • Be transparent; honesty and openness is valued above perfection. Both Fladgate and Oxera, for example, fall below the required minimum number of employees for gender pay reporting but do so anyway as they believe it’s the right thing to do.  Oxera’s figures revealed male associates received higher bonuses than their female counterparts. As a result, a review of its bonus structure is underway to unpick this and establish the root cause.

  • Don’t be a busy fool! Yes, take action but a) make sure it’s the right action and b) measure the impact. Making lots of changes is useless if you don’t track them. Implement one or two initiatives at a time and measure them carefully to understand if they’re making a difference. This will help you to make considered changes and inform your next steps. 

  • I challenge you to review your recruitment strategy and internal processes. For lots of employers, Automatic Tracking Systems (ATS) are used to screen candidates at the beginning of the process. Are they sifting women out before they get into the process? Consider a more manual process. 

  • Don’t lose momentum once you hit a target. The 30% club reached theirs and then they dropped. Have a plan in place for continual progress.

Whatever great work we are already doing, there is still more to be done. And remember, this is not a fight for women alone. We need men involved right from the top to the roots of organisations to help address the balance.

Are you tipping the scales in favour of a #balanceforbetter? 

And what small steps can you take to start seeing change this International Women’s Day and beyond?