Work + Family was one of a number of organisations at the first Work + Family Show at London's ExCeL.

A junior minister told the Work + Family Show that the Government wants to work with headhunters to encourage them to put more women forward for senior positions.

Jenny Willott, junior minister for women and equalities and for employment relations and consumer affairs, told the first Work + Family Show at London's ExCeL on Friday that more women needed to be put forward for senior roles. Economist Vicky Pryce said headhunters needed to look for a broader base of candidates. She also said quotas for women were more important a level down from the boardroom to build the pipeline of female talent.

In a session entitled Man up, lean in or mini-skirt, Jo Bostock, founder of the Pause consultancy, said the Lean in mantra placed a lot of responsibility on women for their own career progression, but organisations and their leaders needed to “make damn sure that it is not just down to women to find solutions” and make the business case for diversity. Ben Black, director of My Family Care, said he believed leaders were more and more likely to grasp that business case.

On quotas, Vanessa Vallely  of We Are The City said women wanted to be promoted on merit, but Jo Bostock said she was a step away from being pro-quotas since the idea of merit implied a degree of objectivity. “The truth is that this idea of merit is made up. It depends who decides what has value and on what leaders think success looks like,” she said.

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Vanessa Vallely said she had felt forced to adopt a ‘male’ leadership style when she was working in the City. She now felt it was important for women to be “authentic”. Bostock felt it was important that people could be themselves and not be forced into any kind of gender stereotype. She also felt it was important to focus on a more equal division of labour at home so that both partners’ careers were valued. “More balance at home would be good for men and women,” she said, adding that men faced more social pressure than women not to work flexibly. “That is where role modelling is important, including that by senior male leaders”.

Flexible working

Another session, How flexible can you be,  debated flexible working. Sarah Jackson of Working Families said the organisation had been working with employers to develop a strapline for employers where they could state on job adverts that they welcomed flexible working applications. Jo Lewis, director of Business HR at Sky, said flexible working was often based on trust – hence the law currently saying that people cannot apply for flexible working in the first six months in a job. However, she said trust could be built even in the course of the recruitment process. She recommended for this reason that asking for flexible working be left until the end of an interview after the candidate had built that trust through talking about why they were the best person for the job.

Harriet Minter from The Guardian added that candidates think through what the practicalities might be of them working flexibly before they requested it and said they should address the possible questions their employers might have.

A member of the audience raised the issue of asking for reduced days, but still being expected to get a full-time workload work done. Jackson said it was important to be clear when asking for reduced hours what you were asking for. If you regularly worked overtime when you worked full time, were you asking for 60% of those hours or three days a week. If issues then arose about workload negotiations would be easier.

The panel agreed that it was important when hours had been agreed that people were firm about their boundaries to avoid family time being squeezed and said organisations needed to review job specs if a job was reduced and not just expect a person to keep doing the same work on reduced hours.

The problem of homeworkers overworking was also raised and the issue of unconscious bias against homeworkers who often got missed out for more challenging work assignments. Jackson said she knew of a law firm who had appointed a work allocator to ensure work was shared evenly between all workers, whether remote or office-based.

She added that she did not think flexible working and women’s career progression could move any further forward without more men deciding to work flexibly. Working Families’ research showed men under 35 had different expectations about work and family and wanted to share more in family life. Studies also showed men were the most disengaged workers and the more likely to be simply treading water in their careers. “Organisations need to wake up to that,” she said, adding that women could help encourage their partners to work more flexibly. also took part in a debate on job search and the application process and detailed a range of different approaches to job search, from contacting recruitment agencies, including those specialising in flexible working, to online searching, social networking and direct approaches.

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