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We need nuanced solutions to business' gender challenge

Solutions to gender inequality in business are simple in concept but tricky in implementation

I recently asked my four-year-old son what he wants to be when he grows up. His reply surprised me: ‘A daddy’. ‘And what job would you like to do?’ I enquired. ‘I could work half the week,’ he said, ‘and then look after my child the other half.’

Although he was holding a mirror to the life of his own parents I was terribly proud of my modern young man. We are seeing a shift in society where the desire for flexible working, time with family, and the other joys of life are no longer simply the preserves of women. However, it will take a drive from men who want to work more flexibly to change the way we as a society currently view part-time working: as low status, low paid and career-limiting.

HR magazine’s recent online article ‘Women “hugely outnumbered” on boards’ reflects the fact that we still have a long way to go, with fewer than half of companies having increased their female representation over the last few years. Despite the achievements that followed the Davies review, female representation remains stubbornly low, particularly in executive director roles. It was heartening to see the NHS announce that it will be striving for half of board directors to be women – however, one wonders if that is ambitious enough in a sector that employs more than 75% women.

I think some of the solutions are simple in concept, if tricky in implementation. And they need to be nuanced to address the executive gender challenge, which is very different to the non-executive director challenge.

The latter seems to be about the requirements boards set for non-executive roles and how they go about recruiting for them. A third of companies still report heavy reliance on the personal networks of current board members to source new ones, with only 2% openly advertising. Therefore we should not be surprised that this delivers more of the same. I have worked with organisations that have been more open-minded on the requirements of candidates and have taken an open approach to sourcing them – with very clear and definite results, both in diversity and improved governance.

The executive gender challenge needs a different solution. It remains the case that long hours and personal sacrifice are requirements at executive level whatever the sector. And that just doesn’t fit with having children, no matter how you try and square it. We need a concerted effort to value the impact senior leaders achieve as opposed to the hours they work, and to make it ok for both men and women at any level to work flexibly, without detriment. This makes business sense.

Talented people also have families and lives and are better at work for it. I am fortunate enough to work for an organisation that recognises this and both business and individual benefit as a result. Companies need to grasp this as a business issue. After all, McKinsey’s research demonstrates very clearly that diverse boards deliver better business outcomes; with gender diverse boards outperforming others by 15% and ethnically diverse boards outperforming by 35%. And the research found that in the UK gender diversity on the senior executive team corresponded to the highest performance uplift in the data set. Yet McKinsey also found women account for only 12% of executive team members in the UK. So what are we waiting for?

Business needs to seize the day and make the gender equality debate a thing of the past. As HR professionals we have a very significant role to play in making this happen. I look forward to the day my son fulfils his ambition to be a daddy, and I sincerely hope he has a fulfilling and rewarding career as well.

Mandy Coalter is director of people at United Learning