What does good employment look like?

The All-Party Parliament Group on Women and Work heard yesterday from several employers about what they have been doing to boost women’s employment prospects during the pandemic.

Hand putting wooden cube block on blue background with word CAREER


The much delayed Employment Bill could bring more flexible working and more rights for women in the workplace, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work heard yesterday.

Barrister Martina Murphy, Vice Chair of the Employment Law Bar Association, told the meeting, hosted by Jess Phillips MP,  that she hoped the Bill, expected to come before Parliament next year, would bring a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment at work and by third parties as well as guidance and a code to help employers understand how to interpret the law; a day one right to flexible working and a right to request a change to flexible working more than once a year; and an extension to protections for pregnant and returning parents until six months after the birth of their children.

The discussion about the Employment Bill was accompanied by a range of best practice case studies of what leading companies have done to ensure women’s careers don’t fall behind as a result of Covid.

Parental leave

Charlotte Veillet, Policy and Benefits Manager at John Lewis Group, outlined the company’s equal parental leave policy which was rolled out in the summer alongside measures on part-time working, a ‘flexible first’ policy where all roles are advertised as flexible unless that is operationally impossible and leave for baby loss. This followed consultation with employee network groups. The equal parental leave policy was prompted by research showing affordability of paternity leave is a real barrier to uptake.  Working with John Lewis’ employee networks, the policy offers all partners with one year’s service 26 weeks’ paid leave – 14 weeks on full pay and 12 weeks on half pay. On average so far parents have taken an average of 16 weeks’ leave with only a quarter taking the additional 12 weeks. Veillet said that underlined that affordability was a key issue.

John Lewis has also increased awareness of its Shared Parental Leave policy. Veillet said the equal parental leave policy had received very positive feedback with some employees talking about the importance of having their partner around if they had been through a traumatic birth, particularly in light of the pandemic. It had also meant that women who are self employed have been able to keep their businesses going because their partners have been able to be around to help with childcare.

Flexible working

Clare Corkish, HR director at Vodafone UK, spoke about how the company had responded to  Covid by creating future-ready ways of working. This supplements its global policies on domestic violence  and parental leave, which enable mums and dads to return for the first six months on full pay but to gradually ease themselves back in by only working a four-day week.

The new ways of working are built on three principles: flexibility, empowerment and trust.  The three ways of working are blended, with the blend being reliant on the role rather than a fixed set of days in the office; fully working from home; and site-based. The aim is to provide the right balance between business and individual needs, “building on the best of both worlds”. It means Vodafone can attract and retain the best talent and has access to a broader range of jobseekers across the UK.  The impact on diversity and inclusion is being tracked. 

Corkish also mentioned that Vodafone allows its employees to work from abroad for four weeks a year and has brought in spirit of Vodafone days which can be used for personal development or connection and to break periods of intense work.

Menopause, pregnancy loss and fertility

Alison Last, Corporate Communications Manager, UK and Ireland at Kellogg’s, spoke of the company’s new pregnancy loss, fertility and menopause policies. The menopause policy came in response to a panel event where someone posted a comment about the menopause which brought an “explosion” of replies. “We realised we needed to do more to raise awareness and offer support,” said Last. They have trained managers in how to make workplace adjustments and to signpost women to occupational health support and have offered paid time off for pregnancy loss and fertility issues [up to three periods of leave per year for fertility], all based on a principle of trust. There is also a free counselling helpline. 

The company is now working on creating a culture where people feel comfortable to talk openly about these issues. The move is part of its aim to reach gender parity at senior management level by 2025 [it is on 48% women now]. All managers had D & I targets, all interview panels are equally split on gender; and women are offered mentoring and career development support. The company took part in one of Google’s I am remarkable workshops on self promotion and has a gender 50/50 resource group, attempting to ensure that this is evenly balanced between men and women and that men are encouraged to be allies.

Women engineers

Catherine Colloms, Director Corporate Affairs and Brand at Openreach, then spoke about its attempts to boost the number of female engineers in the business. It has worked with the University of Exeter to find out whether its existing job adverts might put women off applying. The research found that small changes, such as not including things like ‘climbing telegraph poles’ in ads for engineers or not using the word engineering could stop women being off applying.  The company rewrote its adverts in light of the research and tested them on 2,000 women, finding a 200% increase in women’s likelihood to apply for jobs. It then developed a digital marketing campaign to showcase the female engineers already in the business to change assumptions about who an engineer is. Flexible working was also important.

In a discussion afterwards, Clare Corkish said that since its customer care roles had gone remote, it had had a more diverse range of applications, particularly from older women who might not want or be able to work in a call centre. Charlotte Veillet said work with the government’s nudge unit had shown an increase from 38% to 51% in the percentage of women who applied for roles where flexible working was mentioned on job adverts.

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