How to get to equality: the Top Employer Award debate

Too much of Government policy for women is just “tinkering” with a system which prevents women from getting to positions of power when what is needed is radical action to address the barriers that hold them back, according to the keynote speakers at Top Employer Awards on Tuesday evening.

Gender expert Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds, former president of the TUC, spoke about their book, Man Made: Why So Few Women Are in Positions of Power.

Tutchell said she and Edmonds had interviewed 115 successful women for the book, including Lady Brenda Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Helena Kennedy QC, scientist Baroness Susan Greenfield and Helena Morrissey, founder of the 30% Club. She said they all had a great deal of self belief, but all had faced challenges in the workplace and in many cases harassment because they were women.

If they were too competent they were deemed to be hard or unfeeling or a “queen bee”. If they were too sympathetic they were weak and unfit to lead. Several had been confused with cleaners or support staff at meetings. But it was when they had become pregnant or had children that they had often felt the full extent of gender inequality, said Tutchell, citing one woman who had felt she had to continue a meeting after her waters broke. She added that there was still a stigma attached to part-time work and quoted Baroness Patricia Hollis who said that a lot had happened [for women], but not enough has yet changed.

John Edmonds said he and Tutchell had been surprised at how bad things still were for women. He cited the gender pay gap and lack of diversity at the top of organisations – three quarters of MPs were men, only one of the 12 Supreme Court judges was female; the ratio of male to female leaders in local government was 7:1 and 95% of the most powerful jobs in FTSE 350 companies – CEO and Chief Finance Officer – were men. Even in the arts, the power gap between men and women was “enormous”, he said. Such disadvantage was not spasmodic or incidental nor easy to correct. “It is deep rooted, persistent and immensely damaging,” he said. “If we want to change things we need a response which is proportionate to the size of the problem.” Calling for a culture change, he said moves like targets to increase women on boards were just “tinkering” with the system. “Many large companies have impressive policy statements about women, but frequently fill director level positions without advertising. Remember that fact when people talk about merit,” he stated. “Women should not have to rely on the good will of powerful men. If we continue to do that equality could be up to 100 years away.”

He outlined four ways he said could bring greater equality by the next generation:

1. Enforcing equal pay and sex discrimination legislation rather than relying on individual women to take cases to tribunal and put their reputation on the line.
2. Transparency over earnings so women can make proper comparisons with their male peers.
3. Quotas. Edmonds said a lot of scare stories had been spread about Norway’s experience with quotas. “You won’t find a rapid move to equality unless there is legal intervention by government. It doesn’t generally happen organically and if it does it is very slow,” he said.
4. Disrupting the norm of a linear career path. As people live and work longer there will be more need to change career path, to retrain, to have “a second go at higher education”. He said career breaks should become a normal part of people’s working lives so that women taking time out for children would not be about having to play catch-up.

He ended: “Can a new generation of women put companies and governments under the same pressure that was last mobilised around 40 years ago? If we take no effective action we can start drafting apologies to our granddaughters and their daughters. Those women will have to pay the price of today’s company and political leadership and for our own weakness in not demanding the reforms that deep down we all know are necessary.”

Equality at home and at work

Tutchell and Edmonds spoke after an introduction to the Awards by’s founder Gillian Nissim. She highlighted legislative changes over the last year, such as Shared Parental Leave, and how despite low take-up this had raised a debate about the links between equality in the workplace and equality at home. She also spoke about the results of’s annual survey which showed that, although many respondents worked flexibly or very flexibly, there were still significant numbers who felt they had had a flexible working request turned down without proper justification by their employer. She outlined how was continuing to work to promote the benefits to employers and employees of flexible working and had revamped its website to make access to information, advice and flexible jobs easier.

In the Q & A session which followed the awards ceremony, which saw the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service win the Overall Top Employer Award, there was a lot of discussion about how to get men more involved in issues around women’s career progression.

Katerina Gould of Women Returners asked how discussions around career breaks could become less of a woman’s issue.

John Edmonds said a lot of men wanted to change career direction at some point and felt trapped in their jobs or wanted to be more involved in child rearing. That was why breaks needed to become the norm. Melanie Forbes, CEO of Guidant Group, which sponsored the panel, said she hated women’s networks. “They treat the symptoms not the cause,” she said. “Career breaks are a leadership issue and leaders happen to be men. If we just talk about these things in women’s networks it’s a lost cause. Career breaks are not a women’s issue. They are a talent management issue.”


There was discussion of how Tutchell and Edmonds’ book applied to SMEs. John Edmonds said many people who started SMEs had fled corporates to get greater flexibility. Larger organisations needed to look more like a cluster of smaller organisations and be more based on networks and webs of relationships rather than hierarchies and status. Dave Dunbar, Head of Digital Workplace at Nationwide Building Society and a judge for the Top Employer Awards, said small SMEs were very agile and corporates had the resources to be more flexible. The most rigid organisations were larger SMEs. It was important to try to understand what made them clamp down as they grew and how they could be opened up again.

Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation at Cranfield School of Management, another Top Employer Award judge, added that many smaller SMEs accommodated specific individual needs, but it was important for different ways of working to become normalised so that when they grow that flexibility continues. “It needs to become a normal way of working, not something extraordinary for a particular problem,” she said.

Jennifer Liston-Smith, a Top Employer Award judge and Director of Coaching & Consultancy at My Family Care, who was chairing the session, said SMEs needed to remain value-driven organisations as they grew, with their founders’ vision shared by everyone.

Changing mindsets

Eva Tutchell was asked if she had any “secret strategies” for women to succeed. She said the women interviewed for Man Made were all very determined, but all felt they had been lucky. Nevertheless, they had often “been to hell and high water”. Every one of them felt they were an “impostor”.

Melanie Forbes said there was no silver bullet that worked. “A multitude of things have to change,” she said, beginning with people’s mindsets. She added that being a good role model to future generations was an important contribution to change.

Dave Dunbar said there was a strong business case for flexible working and technology was opening up new channels for people to get their voices heard. It was important for employees to be very clear about what the objectives were of their jobs and to argue the case against presenteeism.

John Edmonds said men needed to change, but the peer pressure not to work flexibly or take breaks was very strong. Others noted a change in men’s approach to inclusion and parenting. Bank of America Merrill Lynch had noticed that more and more men in its hiring workshops shared parental responsibility, for instance.

The panel were asked if women were not applying for the top roles because they were “too smart” and they felt fulfilled personally and professionally where they were. Perhaps they could see what promotion involved in terms of sacrificing their personal lives and just didn’t want to take that step.

John Edmonds said the top jobs in large organisations were usually designed by “megalomaniacs” who did “enormous hours for enormous salaries”. The jobs needed to be redesigned and organisations should be more about building webs of relationships than about one person at the top “carrying a banner and shouting at anyone who doesn’t follow them”.

Stigma and stereotypes

Another question was about how to get rid of the stigma surrounding part-time jobs. Professor Kelliher said research showed the case for hours neutral jobs which were not hung up on the quantity of time it took to do a job and did not assume full time or linear career progression was the norm. This would help people to think differently about part-time roles. Melanie Forbes said the majority of new start-ups were run by women who created their own flexibility. She struggled to understand what full time and part time were as full time was different hours to different people.

The panel were asked whether flexible working was about policy or culture. Dave Dunbar said the two went hand in hand. You needed the right thinking processes to develop a flexible culture and the policies to reinforce and normalise it. Professor Kelliher said her research showed organisations with more informal flexible working tended to have better outcomes than those with formal arrangements, but she agreed that formal arrangements protected employees better, for instance, if there were management changes and flexible working was withdrawn or changed. Ideally the two should feed off each other.

The panel were also asked if talking about male structures and hierarchies just stereotyped men. Dave Dunbar said life was full of stereotypes. He had been privileged to watch his son grow up and that it was as enriching for a man to be an involved parent as it was for a woman. Men needed to stand up against peer pressure.

Melanie Forbes said things would only change for both men and women if men were part of the debate. Professor Kelliher added that women’s equality was not just an issue for women and that men who supported it had a responsibility to make a stand.

John Edmonds said traditional stereotypes about men were a trap. “If we break out of the male stereotype everyone will be happier,” he said.

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