Women on Top: a whistle-stop tour of the issues

The second part of Hilary Devey’s BBC Two programme Women on Top was a whistle-stop tour of the issues relating to women’s career progression, beginning with the contentious issue of quotas.

There were pros and cons in Norway where quotas have been imposed. The programme heard that the number of women CEOs was still small. Maybe it was too soon for quotas to the leadership of boards, though. The programme explored whether shared parenting might help women rise up the career ladder by making the childcare burden a bit more equal. In Norway, dads are encouraged to take three months’ paternity leave and can extend this to 10 months. Some 90% of dads in Norway take three months’ paternity leave, compared with only 40% of dads in the UK who take two weeks off.

The programme showed a host of dads on leave playing with their children in a play area, a scene which is almost unimaginable in the UK where mums dominate any activity associated with children. Vince Cable spoke about the UK Government’s plans for shared parenting, but others, including Hilary, were worried about the impact on SMEs. The programme skated over why it might be more damaging for companies to lose male workers than female ones.

Hilary believed it was better to focus on helping women return to the workplace and getting employers to think about the issue more laterally, given that maternity leave represents only a small part of their overall career span. She spoke to Ruby McGreggor Smith, CEO of a FTSE 250 company, who had taken a two-year break after having her second child. She stressed the importance of having a supportive employer and good mentor figures.

Next Hilary considered the issue of how to reduce childcare costs. The programme spoke to Ford who have a workplace creche. Another way of saving on childcare was through encouraging flexible working, such as term-time options. The programme spoke to two workers at BT. One was a mum of four who had progressed up the career ladder to a senior management position despite working from home. It showed her logging on at 6am then taking the kids to school, returning to do some work before attending a school event in the afternoon. She said that she was totally in control of her work schedule and remote working had removed the constant guilt of having to make hard choices between home and work issues. “This is how I work now. It is the norm,” she said. The head of BT’s sales was also shown working from home in his shed. This allowed him more time to see his seven-year-old daughter, he said.

Hilary was still worried about the impact of flexible working on SMEs. Corporates like BT, she figured, had the resources to absorb any costs. What about smaller companies? She visited a family accountancy firm and asked how they had coped with staff going off on maternity leave and wanting to come back on flexible hours. They had had to have some difficult conversations with clients, they said, explaining their policies. Some clients didn’t like it. The couple have three children and had to close their second office when their third child was born. He comes to the office some days. Hilary pointed out that they had had to sacrifice growth to get the work life balance they wanted, but they showed work life balance was possible in an SME.

She went to a meeting of The Pearls, a women’s networking group. She is fairly sceptical about such groups, she said, but let herself appear at least to be convinced by some enthusiastic women in high heels who spoke of how the network had boosted their confidence by letting them talk about the issues they faced at work and home and allowed them to meet other women outside their sector.

She was whisked away to Westminster to talk to Barbara Follett about how quotas in politics had boosted the number of Labour MPs. Barbara was all for quotas as a necessary short-term measure. Hilary was not convinced. Nicola Horlick agreed. Hilary was taken to meet Lord Davies, the man behind boardroom targets for women. Hilary preferred this approach. We were taken to a meeting of the Professional Boards Forum which is trying to boost the number of women on boards. It showed how applying for a board position was less complicated than it might appear. Then we met Amanda Mackenzie from Aviva who is amazingly the only woman on the board of Mothercare – as a non-executive director. If ever there was a business case for including more women on boards surely Mothercare is a good example since most of its customers are women.

By then Hilary was bored of women on boards. She thinks it’s more important to build the pipeline than focus on women on boards. She returned to her own business and started a promotion campaign to recruit more women forklift drivers on flexi-hours, arguing the business case for more diversity from the grassroots up.

The programme ended with Hilary giving a rallying cry to ambitious women everywhere to rise up and seize the reins of power. “You can get there!” she said.

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