Sector News

The three things holding women back at work

September 2, 2015
Diversity & Inclusion

Ever looked around a boardroom and wondered where all the women are? Me too. The reality is that while the number of women on FTSE boards has nearly doubled over the past four years, and there are countless studies extolling the virtues of diversity on decision-making, inclusivity and business performance, very few companies can truly say, “we do diversity well.”

Despite recent progress on gender diversity, organisations continue to struggle with turning good intention into positive action. Based on my seventeen years in recruitment, I’ve found that three factors are keeping talented women out of the boardroom.

Unhelpful stereotypes
Unhelpful stereotypes mean women are held back, even before entering the jobs market. In formative education, young females are opting out of subjects such as maths and science that are perceived as more typically male. With this already impacting the engineering industry, we can feel the ripple effect across other industries and roles, even those seen to be more typically female.

Female board members also remain tied to the expectations of stereotypically feminine traits. A recent government study revealed women are more likely to be referred to as “bitchy”, “emotional” and “bossy” than their male colleagues.

Entrenched expectations of senior women in business and testosterone-fuelled boardrooms must change before we will see true diversity. And without a talent pool of rising stars at every level, female representation on boards cannot increase.

Unconscious bias
Unconscious bias is a nasty little problem, and one I have encountered many times in my years in recruitment. These thoughtless decisions and generalisations creep in at every level of the recruitment process, from the make-up of a selection panel to the timing of an interview.

They may seem innocent, but we know that they can have a negative impact on diversity. For example, women are less likely to apply for roles with long job descriptions and won’t put themselves forward if they don’t meet each and every entry criteria – unlike men. Therefore, hiring organisations need to think carefully about how job adverts and recruitment literature are written.

We also know that female candidates tend to be judged on experience, whereas male candidates are assessed on potential, and that interviewers are more likely to question women than men on their ability to balance work and family life. It is essential that hiring committees consider candidates on equal terms if they are to avoid putting women immediately on the back foot through unconscious choices.

Unconscious biases can be very difficult to weed out. By applying a consistent and thoughtful system across the talent acquisition process, businesses can be sure to avoid inadvertently excluding the best candidates.

Lack of role models
High profile role models are important in helping women reach board level. Senior women demonstrate that that there is no limit on what others can achieve at the company, that the business values the contributions of women and makes a powerful brand statement.

Every employee should feel like their business is saying, “we recognise the talents of women within our organisation, we want them to play an important role, and we are supporting them to do so.”

Without role models, women can feel directionless and alone, so senior women – and men – must also be champions for the cause. For example, making sure that policies such as childcare and flexible working practices for both men and women are in place.

Every organisation can make small changes to influence a big impact on gender diversity, here are three to start with:

Battle stereotypes: this could be through setting up and partnering with school and university outreach programmes, or by challenging internal expectations and language used around job descriptions and promotions. Don’t accept lazy clichés about what men and women are capable of – do look at individual attributes.

Call out unconscious bias: training your hiring managers properly to spot unconscious bias and manage the end-to-end recruitment processes with diversity front of mind is critical. Make sure that your people are educated and know best practice so that they are empowered to make necessary changes.

Individual empowerment: as my own career has progressed, I’ve had the benefit of being involved in mentor programmes both as a mentor and as a mentee. By matching people with female mentors who have complementary strengths, we can help each individual identify and successfully pursue their desired career paths. This helps them to grow their career in their own unique way and build bridges between senior management and high potential high performers.

By Paula Parfitt

Source: The Guardian

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