Empty gestures and passive policies aren’t enough – it’s time for change

With frustration over lack of sustained progress for women at work boiling over, businesses are running out of time to show that they are authentic about change.

 

After ‘dismally slow’ progress towards addressing the gender pay gap, failure by many businesses to meet gender balance targets and estimates that the gender gap is on course to close in 99 years, now is the time for change. The last three years’ progress has slowed due to Brexit discussions. Now it is the time to refocus. Business confidence is recovering after a year of political upheaval and as organisations stabilise, they will need to focus on retaining staff.

In order for businesses to retain the best, they will need to think of prioritising key populations in their workforce who might be more vulnerable and likely to disengage, including working parents, female talent and those moving through other major life transitions.

Creating modern workplaces that are attractive to the next generation of working parents isn’t about prioritising one gender over another – and an encouraging move seen this year is the wave of new dads saying exactly the same thing mums have been saying for years.

Boards need to move the conversation on from gender: it’s more sophisticated than that. New dads want the same as new mums, but businesses haven’t woken up to that yet. They still think it’s a working mothers’ problem. In addition, there’s still not enough encouragement to take parental – and paternity – leave. Corporates are good at celebrating how progressive their policies are, but if no-one can take them up out of fear, what’s the point?

Against presenteeism

Put simply, businesses must create more innovative working practices that facilitate all employees to bring their best. Organisations need to focus on productivity, not on output. Presenteeism is the enemy of productivity: it has strong links to the rise of burnout and work-related stress that have been observed this last decade. For change to happen, there needs to be more understanding and advocacy at the top of organisations, functions and teams.

Passive advocates intimate that they understand the arguments when it comes to D&I, but this won’t create real corporate change – especially given the context of the gender fatigue that has been a feature for some time. Clients need a strong business case and rationale as to why they’re focusing on specific employee groups to give them additional support: the system is still failing those who are in the minority, especially as you get to management and leadership levels.

Take female pay gap figures – there are examples almost every week showing how systemic issues embedded over the last few decades are heavily biased towards the majority and ideals of male leadership. Businesses are running out of time to show that they are authentic about change. It shouldn’t take so long for meaningful change to happen if leadership is properly aligned.

No more empty gestures

Progress has been incredibly slow, and unless boards can show that they’re actively closing the gender pay gap, making a difference and increasing women in senior leadership roles, it’s going to really backfire on them. There have been a few clients that we’ve worked with recently where women have been declining to participate in research or case studies because they’re sick of saying what needs to change and then seeing nothing move. There needs to be change rather than just empty gestures. If not, I really worry about the engagement of key employee populations in the 2020s. It may well get worse rather than better.

Companies need to stop talking about what they’re doing and actually do it. Empty gestures aren’t going to be enough any more. We have to enable leaders to make concrete change happen – and those who do will reap the benefits.

 



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