When Chris Parke and Jo Lyne set up Talking Talent 10 years ago, they had both noticed that the women they were coaching had very different experiences to the men.
“There were repeated patterns and particular periods in their careers that were difficult. We really felt there were more innovative solutions and different ways of thinking that coaching could offer them and their line managers,” says Parke.
Talking Talent is a coaching company focused on women and working parents. Parke says there are three vital parts to their approach – the women themselves and how they respond to the environment they find themselves in, their line managers and team who hugely influence that environment and culture and the business systems, culture and tone set by the organisation and its leaders.
He believes that that approach has resulted in some “quite fundamental shifts” among some of the clients Talking Talent have been working with for a decade.
“They have been early adopters and have seen the business case and rationale,” he says. “They have put resource and budget behind all three parts.”
That business case includes retaining and promoting experienced staff and moving towards a more diverse workforce at all levels.
Parke adds: “We are absolute believers in the commercial benefit this brings and have great evidence to support this belief – EY as just one example saved £17m in the first 18 months of our programme together.
Most importantly though, we know that our coaches have really helped to change not just people’s careers, but their lives, helping women to achieve their most fulfilling ambitions at home and at work.”
However, he admits there are “stragglers” and that some sectors are lagging behind. While financial services, for instance, were early adopters, investment banks and insurance “came late to the party”, he says. “It feels as if they have just started looking at these things.”
Even those who look like they are making progress may be struggling, he says. They may do women’s networks and win awards, but they may not be making as much progress on building a better female pipeline, he states.
“This is the most complex change programme I have worked on in my career. It takes commitment and resources to tackle such a huge societal and behavioural issue,” says Parke. “This stuff takes real courage.”
One of the problems is that businesses often see women’s career progression as an HR issue, he says, and HR is 70-80% female.
“It can be quite difficult for HR to hold a mirror up to this issue as it feels like women presenting an issue about women, but it is important for male leaders and advocates to see it as a really important commercial issue that they need to stand behind. It needs to be owned by the business, not just HR,” he says.
He is encouraged by the increasing light the press is shining on the subject, but says there is a danger some men are getting tired of the so-called women’s agenda and feel like they are being blamed for the situation.
“It is really important to engage men and get them to take part in meetings and forums because at the moment I spend my life surrounded by women preaching to the converted.
We need to find a different audience and we need to co-own issues such as flexible working,” says Parke. “We do ourselves a disservice if we label them as working mums’ issues.
So many people, particularly senior managers, are at risk of burn out and they need to be able to have a life outside work. It is important for their health. Long hours are a very short term policy.”
He adds that it took him three years to feel comfortable speaking at meetings about the work culture that is holding back women.
“I always had this crushing sensation that I would say the wrong thing and get stoned,” he says. “The irony is that being in a minority is the same thing many of the women I coach face at senior levels in their workplace.
It can feel quite exposing as a man, even if you are really passionate about the issues, but if men can find the courage to speak out the pace of change will really accelerate.”
He thinks we need to create safe spaces where men and women can talk honestly about the things that are preventing progress.
That kind of inclusive approach is vital, he says, and needs to involve as many men as women. It doesn’t mean doing away with gender specific forums. Parke feels there is a big demand for forums for dads and says all the events he does for dads are oversubscribed because there are so few of them.
He hopes the debate around Shared Parental Leave and the steps being taken by progressive companies will accelerate change and says enhancing SPL will open up choice and allow families to make an informed decision rather than one just based on finances.
For the future he hopes Talking Talent will be able to do more work with senior leadership teams to act as a catalyst for change. “We want to get in front of senior leaders and hold a mirror up to the issues,” he says.