· 2 min read · Features

2018 revealed gender gaps, in 2019 let's change them


While we reflect on a year of digital progress, more work needs to be done to drive forward diversity in business in the new year

2018 was a year of continued disruption, with technological change and digital transformation continuing at pace. It was the year the Internet of Things finally started to show its true potential, the year in which AI went mainstream, and the year the real starting gun on the race to 5G was fired.

Yet, even in this fast-paced world of digital progress, women are still under-represented in business. Indeed, this was also the year a government-backed review found that one in four companies in the FTSE 350 have just one woman on their board – with five all-male boards currently still in existence. The review has quite rightly urged the 200 or so underperforming FTSE 350 companies to meet the target of having a third of women in senior leadership positions by 2020. But for that to happen there remains a long way to go.

For many women, juggling maternity with the high demands of work is a huge career hurdle to overcome. From the outset more must be done to support women back into work and then get them into senior roles.

In these disruptive, uncertain times the experience and skillsets that career returners bring are invaluable and must not be understated. From gender pay gap reporting to the rise of the #MeToo movement, 2018 is littered with events that illustrate the need for businesses to represent the public at large; no matter their age, gender or identity.

At O2 we understand the importance of helping women progress and in 2018 I’m proud to say that we achieved gender parity on our executive team. We also brought back our successful Career Returners programme for a third consecutive year, in partnership with Women Returners.

As 2019 approaches I want us to continue attracting and retaining women with a wealth of untapped talent and experience; women like Cathy McDonnell, mother of three and data manager at O2. After taking a nine-year career break Cathy wanted to return to the world of data analytics. She had reservations, however, as she felt she lacked ‘modern-day’ skills and was unsure about entering a completely different world of work. I’m happy to say that the returnship gave Cathy a platform to ease herself back into the workplace, importantly at her own pace, while enjoying a good work/life balance.

In the new year I’d like to see more companies implement programmes, like returnships, to help boost diversity. This isn’t just about box-ticking – all the evidence suggests that more diverse organisations perform better. According to a recent study of 1,000 companies by McKinsey, those with the most ethnically-diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to outperform peer organisations on profitability.

As our world continues to change, with all the challenges and opportunities that technology will bring, it is impossible to predict how jobs and the workforce will be shaped. But as HR professionals it is our job to help organisations navigate this changing world by embracing diversity. Whether that’s by closing the gender pay gap, ensuring more equal representation at the top of the business, or creating an inclusive work environment, it’s vital that we future-proof our organisations by attracting and retaining diverse talent.

In the centenary year of women’s suffrage we saw the progress women have made since 1918, but also the unfinished business. Only through the combined efforts of business, government and society at large can we ensure we’re not having the same conversation in another 100 years’ time.

Ann Pickering is CHRO at O2