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Mayor of London launches women in leadership initiative


The scheme takes inspiration from private sector initiatives to appoint staff champions as a more effective route than mentoring

The mayor of London Sadiq Khan has launched a new initiative to help more women into leadership roles and to tackle gender inequality in the workplace.

Speaking at the scheme’s launch at City Hall, Khan said that “it is unacceptable in 21st-century London that so many powerful women are being held back.

As a proud feminist I want London to be a shining light in the fight for gender equality,” he said.

The initiative, called Our Time: Supporting Future Leaders, has been set up to break down the barriers that prevent women from reaching senior roles. It works by pairing high-potential female employees with senior staff champions (both men and women), who will help to open up their professional networks, and provide them with opportunities including training.

“We have produced a toolkit for other organisations to follow our lead”, Khan said. The toolkit consists of background about the need for the initiative and how it works; information about how to set up the initiative, including forms and templates; learning materials for participants; and a methodology for baselining and measuring delivery.

There will also be a training programme for the high-potential women and staff champions, and a network to support them through the process.

In response to HR magazine asking what sets the programme apart from a traditional mentoring scheme, Khan explained that the formal structure of the programme “goes much further" than mentoring.

“The HR departments in City Hall, TfL and other parts of GLA [Greater London Authority] will identify the right champions to be matched up with the right women of potential… it is succession planning so we match them and they have time set aside during working hours where the champion can open up their contact book, their networks, and give any other support needed.

“We as an employer then benchmark to see where we are now and have a minimum of six months to see if progress has been made,” he added.

“This is talent management,” Khan went on, giving the example of a football team getting a talented new player and it being “madness to not properly manage that talent for the future”.

The scheme – cited as the first of its kind in the public sector – was inspired by similar models in the private sector, including at Sky and Mastercard, meaning Khan is “confident [they]’ve got the right approach”.

Chris Stylianou, UK and Ireland COO and executive sponsor of the Women in Leadership programme at Sky, explained how a similar initiative is bridging his company's gender gap. “A few years ago we didn’t have a diverse workforce, especially at the top end of the company,” he said.

He went on to explain how Sky launched its Women in Leadership Sponsorship & Development Programme by taking the top 150 high-potential women and matching them with sponsors.

Bella Vuillermoz, director of the property services group at Sky, added that “sponsoring doesn’t require much investment from the company” to deliver results. Sky has so far helped 400 women through the scheme, which has contributed to an increase in women in Sky’s senior leadership roles from 31% to nearly 40% over the last two years.

Another aspect of Sky’s commitment to reaching 50% women in senior leadership roles by 2020 has been its decision to only accept 50:50 candidate shortlists in the recruitment process, Vuillermoz explained after the panel discussion.

“We also thought more broadly about job descriptions and rewrote everything. It was 30% women, 70% men in recruitment pools. Then we changed the job descriptions and overnight this flipped,” she said.

Khan said he expected the first high-potential women and staff champions to take part in Our Time to be identified by June or July to then embark on the initiative for a minimum of six months, after which progress will be measured.

However, Khan did admit after his speech that it may be more challenging to roll this out among smaller businesses. “From working and talking with smaller businesses, they often think this is an additional burden as they don’t have time to do this stuff,” he explained, adding that he wants to encourage larger organisations to pool resources.

“There’s no reason why someone who’s a champion [in their organisation] can’t be a champion for someone in a smaller business as well. The key thing is for businesses to see what’s in it for them.”

Staynton Brown, director of diversity and inclusion at TfL, which is also adopting Our Time, said that “as a male-dominated sector we need to use every tool at our disposal to try to get more women into senior roles”.

When asked by HR magazine about the issue of unconscious biases in male-dominated workplaces, Brown added that in some sectors “tackling cultural norms is a significant challenge so we need to be a lot more radical in our approaches”.

“This programme is fantastic but it’s only radical in so far as it’s not being done across many organisations yet.”

The Our Time initiative is being led by a working group including representatives from all the GLA Group bodies. The GLA, MOPCAC, Transport for London (TfL), The London Legacy Development Corporation and Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation have committed to joining City Hall in adopting the scheme.

The GLA will benchmark the initiative, with progress monitored and an evaluation carried out during the delivery of the GLA Group scheme. Outside of the GLA Group, Lambeth Council and Waltham Forest Council have become the first to sign up, and Westfield has become the first private sector firm to join.