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David Olusoga: Women are workplace changemakers

The setup of husbands being, in effect, CEOs while wives are COOs is difficult to challenge, Olusoga said - UKG/LinkedIn

Women change workplace cultures by their very presence in traditionally male professions, the historian and broadcaster David Olusoga has stated, in the lead-up to International Women’s Day (today, 8 March).

Olusoga’s comments were part of a keynote address that thoroughly examined the history of work. He spoke at a conference hosted by leaders of the HR technology supplier UKG, last week Thursday (29 February), at the Tower of London.

“One of the most interesting areas of research in the 21st century has not just been the study of how women enter previously male professions but how women, by their presence in those professions, are beginning to change workplace cultures rather than being expected to adapt to them,” said Olusoga.

Responding to this, Lucy Kallin, executive director EMEA for Catalyst, a charity for women in leadership, told HR magazine: “The fact that women are at the top table is gradually reshaping the outdated societal norms and dismantling the barriers that have traditionally confined their roles.

Read more: Why the workplace just isn't working for all women

“We are moving from the old hierarchical 'command and control' leadership model to a culture that prizes diversity, inclusivity and empathy, which marks a pivotal shift towards creating not just more equitable but more dynamic and effective workplaces.

“This movement towards an inclusive work environment, underpinned by empathy and an understanding of the importance of diverse perspectives, is emerging as a critical driver for organisational success. It increases innovation and productivity, leads to better performance and problem-solving, reduces groupthink and enhances decision-making.

“HR's role in embedding these principles into a workplace’s culture is essential. A workplace where every voice is heard and valued fosters an environment rich in innovation, collaboration and high performance.”

Speaking to HR magazine, Ruth Cornish, director of HR consultancy firm Amelore, said: “Female leaders are much more focused on the culture and behaviour of their workforce. They will be far less tolerant of microaggressions, which have had large and lasting impact on women.

“The laddish culture is being eroded and topics like the menopause and mental health are now more commonplace. Women are demanding – and getting – better standards around wellbeing, and companies are no longer passive about sexual harassment and objectification of individuals. 

“Women have always been intolerant of poor behaviour in the workplace and voted with their feet. They are now in positions where they can challenge and change things. But there is much more work to be done, and HR has a big role to play in that.”

Read moreTop 10 jobs where women earn more than men revealed

During a section of his keynote address that focused on how workplaces have become gendered over time, Olusoga said: “In the middle decades of the 19th century, after a series of factory and mining acts, children were taken out of factories, and the home became the realm of women. Women's work was deemed to be childcare and maintenance of the home.

“This set the family up as having a pyramidical structure with the husband, in effect, the CEO and the wife, at best, the COO. It is a setup that was to prove – and is proving – extraordinarily difficult to challenge.”

Kallin agreed, citing that only one in 10 CEOs in the FTSE 100 are women.

“Olusoga's analogy perfectly illustrates the persisting gender disparity in the workplace,” she said. “The stark reality that only a fraction of CEOs in the FTSE 100 and FTSE 350 are women reveals a clear stagnation in progress.

“It’s true that we’re seeing a rise in women assuming more board roles that traditionally pave the way to the top executive positions, but the overarching narrative remains unchanged.

“Women continue in support roles, assisting a senior leadership team predominantly made up of men.”

Cornish added: “Organisations still have an inherent bias that men lead and women organise. That needs to be challenged and called out.

“But the main challenge for women in the workplace has always been the ability to work in a flexible manner. HR has a key role to play in creating a stimulating and inclusive hybrid workplaces.

“Family-friendly polices that allow men to also be active working parents are especially key, along with a sharp focus on employee development.”