Don’t fix women, fix work

Joy Burnford’s new book focuses on how to fix the system that disadvantages women at work.

working mum sits at desk, stressed


A collection of actions in different areas, from flexible working to sponsorship, will boost women’s confidence and enable them to overcome the barriers they face at work, according to a new book which argues that we need to fix the systemic issues that hold women back rather than ‘fixing’ women.

Joy Burnford’s new book Don’t Fix Women builds on her years of experience of addressing women’s lack of confidence in the workplace, primarily as CEO of My Confidence Matters, now called Encompass Equality.

The book starts on a despondent note – that, despite some progress, we are in some cases  getting further from equality, with Covid having exacerbated that worldwide. This is despite some feeling that gender equality is done and dusted. The problem for the slow pace of change and backwards steps in some areas is, says Burnford, due to a workplace that is not designed for women, a lack of teeth when it comes to gender pay gap reporting, societal expectations, leaders who are not confident to make the kind of changes needed and the many barriers in women’s way, from career breaks to lack of job opportunities.

The book, based on hundreds of hours of interviews with CEOs, HR managers, diversity and inclusion experts and more, focuses on four main areas – inclusive leadership, cultural frameworks, understanding the obstacles women face at work and quick wins that create a ripple effect.

From leadership to flexible working

On inclusive leadership, Burnford sets out her PACE framework based on passion, accountability, curiosity and empathy. When it comes to accountability she says there need to be clear goals, regular meetings with management about diversity and inclusion metrics, communication about strategies and successes and the embedding of D & I on boardroom agendas. Curiosity is about asking questions and, crucially, listening to the answers, which is key to having the empathy to understand those around you. Pace – in terms of urgency and prioritisation – is also important, but there needs to be an awareness that change takes time in order to counter ‘diversity fatigue’, says Burnford.

The book has a big focus on flexible working and personalisation of working so that it suits both the needs of the business and the different needs of individual workers. There is a great section on job shares, one of the undersold and underused aspects of part-time working which, if you get them right, make it easier to progress if you work reduced hours. The benefits to getting job shares right are huge, including increased wellbeing and decreased risk of burnout. Burnford says all jobs should be advertised as open to job shares and that job shares should be offered as an option where it is feared someone might resign due to overstretch. She says job shares need to become much more a regular part of the HR conversation; there needs to be clarity around processes for performance review and whether job sharers are treated as individuals and jointly; they need to be treated jointly when it comes to praise and credit; and there should be off-site days for assessing strategy and how the role is working.

Networking and allyship

On networking, Burnford talks of the need for a broad range of networking opportunities that respond to the different strengths and preferences of individuals.  That includes virtual events, perhaps with an element of matching people up with others in the organisation who they would not normally talk to. She cites an array of different networking ideas, from private cinema screenings to Wickes’ Walk and Talk initiative where people would go out for a walk, having been paired with someone from the business who they would then chat with on the phone.

Other chapters focus on allyship – from sponsorship and engaging women in meetings to setting an example. Burnford says that allyship goals should be built into performance reviews and that sponsors need to be trained and formally matched up. The same goes for mentors who need effective training and whose impact needs to be measured. It’s also important, says Burnford, that allies don’t feel afraid to make a mistake.

Coaching and caring

There is a section on coaching which says employers could be more open to using coaching for specific problems, such as role transition and return from extended periods of leave. Another section covers reproductive health, including menopause and periods. Burnford herself is not in favour of period leave. She argues that other support, such as flexible working, and greater openness so women don’t feel they can’t talk about the issues is a better way to go.

Caring responsibilities occupy a number of pages as does confidence, but a lot of the solutions relate to the issues the earlier part of the book deals with, such as greater awareness, flexible working and personalisation of support as well as specific leave for carers of all kinds.

For Burnford, it’s about managers educating themselves about the barriers women face and taking action. Now.

*Don’t fix the women: The practical path to gender equality at work by Joy Burnford is published by Practical Inspiration Publishing, price 14.99. 



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