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Why workplaces need to look beyond gender quotas

As International Women's Day approaches businesses need to focus on understanding and empowering female employees

International Women’s Day is fast approaching – the time to celebrate all female achievement. While it is so important to applaud and praise one another, the fact that International Women’s Day is still needed at all highlights an ongoing problem.

When it comes to top leadership positions women are still hugely under-represented, with 2019 figures showing that in the FTSE 350 only 25 women were in chair roles, with fewer chief executives.

Despite the introduction of pay gap reporting it seems the pay disparity between men and women in the UK is actually widening. So where are we still going wrong?

Many businesses believe that setting equality quotas is the solution, but that won’t cut it – the issue runs deeper.

Getting down to the root of it

It all starts with how companies are recruiting.

If you are using forceful words such as 'the perfect candidate' and outline very specific requirements you will potentially be putting women off from the start.

Women heavily judge their own competencies and if they find themselves to not be that 'perfect' candidate they likely will not apply. It has also been shown that having to state your gender at the beginning of assessments can be discouraging for women.

You need to evaluate the motivations behind your hires – these have to be authentic, not for the sake of just ticking some company diversity boxes. This is where quotas can be damaging rather than helpful, making a woman feel like she only got the job because she is a woman. We need to recognise people for the value they bring, their skills, their knowledge, not their gender.

Understanding not demonising

As well as your hiring practices organisations must take a hard look at promotion and reward policies. Is pay based on the role not the individual? Are there clear criteria, communicated to all, for employees to receive that promotion or bonus?

Women also need to feel like they can put themselves forward for that promotion and be comfortable making that step up. Encouraging mentoring, especially if you have strong female role models, will help women to feel simultaneously more secure and more ambitious. In addition to this, organisations also need to be equipping women with the necessary skills and tools for entering into top leadership.

But there doesn’t only need to be training for women but also for men – this is the only way to generate a whole cultural change.

In some workplaces ‘lad jokes’ are still part of everyday office life. Women may laugh along out of politeness or as a coping mechanism, but that doesn’t mean it should continue and be an accepted part of your work culture.

But in the same vein 'banter' shouldn’t be banned – if you forbid things you broaden the divide. Help people to understand why their jokes may be a problem and the subtle difference in people’s perceptions. This is where training is vital for all employees, and managers in particular need to know how to help mediate those differences.

Empowering not patronising

Women should be treated exactly as you would a male employee, not offering special treatment or differentiating in some way.

Empowerment is key, and this should be part and parcel of your company culture, providing women with the means to also empower others and their team. Rather than telling people what they need to do you need to get people to believe in the cause.

Instead of pooling all your resources into hiring diversity officers, organisations need to be helping train up senior management and creating a diverse team to talk collaboratively about how to solve the problems.

It’s motivating for the workforce to see these kinds of issues being taken seriously, but even more so for the initiative to be a group effort. To transform mindsets and your workplace culture you need to create an internal movement, that comes from creating a sense of belonging.

Only by starting to truly change attitudes and approaches can we create real equality, not just the impression of it. And hopefully, as a result, one of these days, International Women’s Day will no longer be necessary.

Alexandra Anders is EMEA talent director at Cornerstone OnDemand