The City and business are in a stew over women. Although it is in part a PR issue, it goes deeper than that and as a working mother with two young daughters my personal view is much of the debate is not grounded in reality. Instead it is dominated by a handful of high profile voices in the media.
What began in Hollywood, #Me Too, swiftly became a catalyst for change not just, and quite rightly, in relation to fighting abuse but as a call to arms about the lack of equality in the workplace.
Since then the gender pay gap has been revealed and, confirming all our suspicions, the skew is towards men occupying the majority of senior positions, thus accentuating the pay gap and forcing questions over why this is the case and what can be done to rectify it.
The cause is admirable. There should be equality in the workplace. Men and women should get paid the same for the same job. Not many would quibble those statements.
Targets aren’t the answer
However, what a large but silent group of people do quibble with is targets. Hiring targets, board quotas etc don’t help women if there is not an underlying change in culture or ambition for working women – and men.
A recent comment piece by Clare Foges in The Times hit the nail on the head about what workplace equality means: “Real equality in the workplace isn’t a numbers game; it is simply the removal of our sex from the question of whether we are right for the role. As Dorothy L Sayers put it: “Once lay down the rule that the job comes first and you throw that job open to every individual, man or woman, fat or thin, tall or short, ugly or beautiful, who is able to do that job better than the rest of the world.”
As the same article says, headline targets do not create equality. Rather they create the impression that women need special treatment and, of greater concern, imply that women may get jobs for being women rather than because they are genuinely the best candidate for the role.
Flexible working for mothers (and fathers)
Targets though are just one part of the problem with the current debate. The real crux of the matter is how to encourage women to join the traditionally male-dominated City and then how to retain them, especially as choices concerning motherhood and balancing family life come into focus.
This is the elephant in the room as it requires meaningful change, not just for women, but for men too. It requires change if true equality is to be achieved and everyone treated the same.
Target setters need to answer questions about what they are prepared to do to encourage women into City roles and then how they will retain them. What genuine changes are they willing to consider to see women and men climb through the ranks? Will they consider flexible working in roles that have typically demanded long hours? Will job sharing become more common? What allowances will be made for family commitments? Should childcare be tax deductible? Can employees be set up to work from home?
These are the sort of changes which should be considered given that so many women, in particular, wrestle with these issues. If they are not considered and addressed, then targets are empty and meaningless.
A comment piece in The Sunday Times this weekend, “Bringing up baby is for Facebook bosses. Working parents get a nanny or get the push,” reveals that these are indeed hard choices for firms, even supposedly innovative ones such as Facebook. Their leaders may make all the right noises about the importance of family and flexibility but the charge from employees is that the digital company, “…actively resists flexibility.”
Couriering breast milk. Really?
It is easy to see how this can quickly turn into a contentious communications issue, both internally and externally as employees and the public feel disenfranchised from the headline debate. Firms need to be careful how they address it and show some empathy.
For example, the recent news that a well-known city institution will courier breast milk to babies of working mothers just shows how wide of the mark firms can be. It quoted an employee that, said institution, “…really is good to women now.” I wonder how many women would concur.
The debate needs to be turned on its head. Employers need to re-evaluate their values and their culture. They need to decide what kind of person they want to employ, what the career path is and how best to retain them. This is not about men and women. It is about people, making life work in and out of the office, for them and their families.
Once firms have fathomed all of the above, they need to engage and explain it to the people they are trying to attract. Communications can help, but the real issue is change.