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Opportunity Now survey reveals gap between policy and reality for women at work

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A survey of more than 25,000 people has highlighted a worrying gap between organisational policies and the experiences of women aged 28 to 40 at work.

Project 28-40 – The Report, compiled by the Opportunity Now campaign, revealed a disconnect between workplace policies and workplace realities for the women who work in them.

More than half of the women who responded to the survey (52%) said they had experienced bullying and harassment at work, with a further 12% experiencing sexually harassment. Nearly a third of women (31%) disagreed that there are good harassment policies at work.

Speaking at the launch of the report at PwC yesterday, PwC chairman Ian Powell said it was critical to create cultures where it is the norm to challenge unacceptable behaviour.

“Is the ability to challenge unacceptable behaviour part of your culture?” he said. “The job of leadership is to make sure it’s ok to do the right thing.”

The report also found less than half (42%) of women think opportunities to advance are fair and equal between men and women at their workplace, and 59% agreed that the culture of their organisation is male dominated.

Kathryn Nawrockyi, director of Opportunity Now, said the research showed women are as confident and ambitious as men, but that employers are not doing enough.

“Frustratingly, [women] are still not receiving enough support from their employers to achieve their ambitions,” she said.

Barriers to success

Julie McClean, senior manager at PwC’s research and insight team, which managed the survey, said the research revealed three main barriers to women reaching the top in business: the stigma attached to flexible working, the perception of senior women’s lifestyles as unattractive, and lack of employer support in terms of performance management and career development.

“It’s not rocket science, but employers are not getting it right,” she said.

The research revealed 64% of women aged 28 to 40 think people who work flexibly are less likely to progress at the same rate as full-time peers, while 31% said flexible workers are resented by their colleagues.

Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management and chair of Opportunity Now, encouraged businesses to think more about outcomes than inputs. “Flexible working is not about working softly, it’s about working smartly,” she said.

Getting the basics right

In the survey, women ranked regular and transparent performance reviews, objective setting and appraisal processes as the most important support mechanism offered by employers.

When asked what one thing their organisation could do to improve career development opportunities, 22% said they wanted fair and transparent promotion and appraisal processes and another 22% said they wanted to see improved career and professional development programmes.

Nawrockyi said improving support from line managers was also critical to helping women achieving their ambitions.

“There’s no shortage of senior leaders clamouring to state their support, but it’s not connecting to their line managers, the people responsible for the day to day experience of people at work,” she said.

She added employers needed to focus on getting the basics right to ensure policies match up with reality: “It’s not about spending lots of money on a new programme. Look at what you’ve got and look at doing it well.”

Tips to promote women 

The report offers five main recommendations for employers:

  • Move women’s progression from a diversity initiative to a core business priority.
  • Set aspirations for the numbers of women you want to see at each level in the organisation.
  • Prioritise the development of excellent managers at every level in the organisation.
  • Create a truly agile organisation. Look at job design, technology and agile teams to remove stigma around flexible working. Allow for non-linear careers.
  • Recognise that harassment and bullying will still occur despite policies. Call it out, deal with perpetuators and make it simple to report.