Over recent decades, we’ve seen many promises made to working women.
Yes, you can have part-time hours (and dramatically reduce your chances of promotion).
Yes, you can take extended maternity leave (but it’s up to you to find the money, and fingers crossed your job will still be there when you get back).
Yes, of course we’re committed to equal pay (just ignore that pesky gender pay gap thing, OK?).
In the 53 years since the Equal Pay Act became legislation, there’s been lots of talk focused on creating an equal environment for women in the workplace, but in reality, little has changed.
There may be less overt lewd behaviour in the office (now it’s more covert, and it has shifted to social media). There may be lots of diversity and inclusion policies and photos (but count how many women and people of colour are really in the business, let alone make it to the top). And there may be lots of colourful campaigns and flag-waving on social media (but that changes what, exactly?)
Our organisation's roads may be paved with good intentions, but the reality for many women is that these still lead to a hellish experience. The gender landscape remains remarkably unchanged for all this talk, and women still face an uphill battle compared to their male peers in terms of pay parity, promotion and opportunity.
As leaders, we need to make sure our intentions and words translate to action. It’s no good signing off on a well-meaning campaign if our organisational culture is in an equality deficit, or if the reality on the ground is different for employees.
As former senior leaders in male-dominated industries, we formed our boutique consultancy with the intention of equipping women with the tools they need to succeed. We coach individuals, leaders and businesses to open their eyes, acknowledge uncomfortable truths, and go beyond the generic, one-size-fits-all solutions we see in so many organisations, to make a meaningful, fundamental difference to overcoming the challenges women face, recognising the unique and wonderful individuals that they are.
To put your promises into action, we recommend five key steps to take control:
1. Role model and lead from the top
Are women held-back by a lack of female role-models in your organisation? Are men and women in senior roles asserting themselves through toxic, aggressive behaviours? If so, then it’s time to acknowledge that the patriarchy is alive and well in your business. Acknowledge this, but do something about it. Make sure people are aligned to your purpose, and coach your leaders into adopting positive mindsets that make a difference, and which translate into successful leadership.
2. Create a culture of trust
Confusion often reigns when people are unable to define the essence of your organisation. What’s your culture like? What do you want it to be?
Make sure everyone at all levels can call out unwanted behaviours without fear of reprisal, and make sure people are held accountable. This isn’t just a poster on a wall, this needs to be a deep-rooted strategic intent that’s linked to results and reward. Look inwards and see what may need to be dismantled – perhaps there’s a boy’s club culture, are women treated as role models or sexually harassed? Support your senior teams to embody this through team and individual coaching.
3. Tackle the root cause for sustainable change
It’s tempting to go straight into solution mode, but we’d always advise taking a pause and reflecting on what works well in your organisation, and what could be better. Gather the data and insight; ask women what it’s really like to work for you. Review your whole employee lifecycle, from attraction and recruitment, to how you facilitate aspiration, to how you develop your people. Make sure they’re fit for purpose, aren’t geared towards men only, and don’t exclude other groups. Invest in one-to-one coaching for men and women, as well as development programmes that will draw out often hidden qualities.
4. Have a clear strategic approach
Your women’s agenda shouldn’t be an afterthought. It shouldn’t be an appendix in your annual report, or a single day or week of webinars and celebration for International Women’s Day, job done. Instead, it needs to be front and centre of your ways of working and forward planning. Simon Sinek has some excellent ideas on this. Put simply, think about your why – what is your company vision, what impact will it have? Think about your how – what is the common purpose, and what accountability will your board have to each other and your people? How will you engage your line managers, and women to make it happen? And thirdly, consider your what – what are the clear actions you will set out to achieve? Make sure you publish them, measure them, and act on the results.
5. Support every woman in your organisation
It goes without saying that you can’t just stick a generic solution onto the issue of gender inequality and consider it dealt with. Women aren’t just one homogenous group. Your organisation will be made of many individuals. They’ll be mums, grandparents, career-focused, sporty, health-conscious, gym-avoiders, married to the job, married to another woman, volunteers, animal-lovers, living with hidden disabilities, survivors of abuse, money-orientated… the list could go on. It’s why we say to every woman we coach to acknowledge who they are, what makes them, them. To say, ‘this is me’ and be proud of that.
To leaders we say, the change has to start with you. To deliver on your promises, and to make your statements a reality you need to face facts. Avoid becoming part of the generic, tokenistic rhetoric and equip the women in your organisation to take control of their own narrative. To change systemic culture, we have to come together collectively, and make those good intentions a meaningful reality.
Our thanks to Karen Powell and Lesley Heath for allowing us to share this guest article. You can purchase their co-authored book Woman of Our Time: Small steps to take control and find your way at Amazon and all good book shops.
About the authors
Karen Powell and Lesley Heath, founders of boutique consultancy www.amatterofchoice.co.uk and women’s community www.womenofourtime.co.uk, aspire to help one million women discover the freedom to breathe. They work with organisations to empower women, increase awareness of women’s lived experiences and provide female-centric training and assistance programmes.