The gender agenda

How do you recruit and retain more women in the workforce? One company believes companies need to get wiser to the different ways men and women communicate.

How do you get companies to recruit and retain more women? Collette Dunkley, founder of XandY Communications, the only UK communications agency specialising in gender communications, believes it is all to do with understanding the differences between men and women. “Companies need to talk differently to their male staff than to their female staff. Women communicate very differently from men so companies need to factor in different communication styles and nuances,” she says.
For Dunkley, a former board member of General Motors, the tradition has been for women to fit into a male idea of working which plays to men’s strengths – continuous careers, risk taking, rational black and white ways of looking at issues and a focus on individual performance - whereas women are much better at focusing on many things at the same time, at building longer-term relationships, at seeing the grey areas and working in teams.
Freshwater fish in salt water
The traditional work culture also ignores the fact that women work in different ways through their lives – they may forge ahead in the early years, but need to freeze their careers when they have babies and return at full steam in their later years. Dunkley, who has five children, has seen this in her own career. She says she often felt “like a freshwater fish swimming in salt water because the parameters were set about work and they were parameters which were built around a male culture”.
The case for employers needing to attract more women is growing, says Dunkley, as women dominate the number of graduates coming out of universities. Employers who want to get or stay ahead need to think about how they target them. “The messages they give out need to be different,” she says.
In terms of recruitment, she says, “men want to know about the rational, hard-edged elements of the job while women are more interested in benefits such as flexible working and whether the company is international.” In terms of retention, there are issues around female promotion and the impact of having children at a time when people might be being promoted to senior management roles. Women might at this time need to keep their position frozen, says Dunkley, but might want the ability to start climbing the career ladder afterwards. They should not be judged as having failed because they succeed at a later stage, she adds.
Dunkley says research shows that men and women opt for different modes of communication. For instance, men tend to prefer more succinct report style types of communication, while women are more likely to go for rapport – a mixture of emotional and rational content. Companies need to consider the ways they communicate with staff so that they are inclusive, says Dunkley. The need for inclusiveness is not political correctness – Dunkley defines it in cold business rationale. Women are responsible for 80% of consumer decisions and make up more than 50% of graduates. It makes sense for companies to take advantage of their insights and knowledge.
XandY Communications training sessions begin with explaining the differences between women and men, the case for including women and the necessity for businesses to have a good mix of men and women at all levels on their staff. Those taking part are shown research about the differences in the male and female brain, how that relates to business and how both ‘female’ and ‘male’ ways of working are important. For example, women will tend to explore ideas more and make connections whereas men will be “more linear” in their approach to brainstorming. The trainers explore how meetings can be structured to bring out the best in both approaches, rather than expecting the women to behave like men.
“At General Motors,” says Dunkley, “I said to my boss when I got to the top that I would achieve all he wanted, but that he should not tell me how to do it as I would not do it in the same way as him. Men are more individualistic while women work more collaboratively and look to build relations,” she says.
Flexible working
Dunkley admits that some people take issue with her focus on differences between men and women and ask whether she is stereotyping the genders. She agrees that there is a continuum of “male/female” behaviour and most people are not on the extremes, but stresses that gender differences are far more significant than, for example, age differences. “The equality agenda has gone too far,” she adds. “It should not be about treating everyone the same because we are not the same.”
XandY Communications backs flexible working options and Dunkely says she encourages companies to advertise that they are open to flexible working in their job recruitment. They also need to target women differently in terms of attracting female talent. Women, she says, are much more likely to find out things through word of mouth than men and to use female networks, such as websites and fora. They are influenced by human stories so companies need to attract them through showcasing case studies of, for example, women working flexibly in places where women are likely to access them.
“Companies need to show they understand women’s lifestyle – the balance between their family life which is very emotional and the fairly rational atmosphere of work. It is hard for women to switch off the emotional side of their brain throughout the working day. Companies need to provide structures that allow for this, such as flexible working. But they also need to make sure that those working with a flexible worker understand why they might be working flexibly. People can be very intolerant.”
XandY Communications is conducting a survey into how women view the UK retail shopping experience and what can be done to improve their experiences. For every woman who takes part £1 goes to the Save the Children Fund.

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