23 July 2019

Small steps, significant strides

Men need to be part of the solution; business and not human resources needs to lead the way; flexible working is essential and has proved a success; job descriptions need to change; and there remains a need to understand why women leave jobs when they reach the higher echelons of companies. All this and more was the subject of a London Women’s Forum panel hosted by Societe Generale at The Allbright Club in Fitzrovia on July 1.

Only 3% of men take up the opportunity to take shared parental leave, even with the offer of full pay, according to panellist Nicola Shaw CBE, executive director UK, National Grid.   “Men are nervous, which may explain why so few share maternity leave”, a view endorsed by recent studies in Sweden, where Anne Lise Ellingsæter, a professor at Oslo University, has argued for a dual parental leave model: parents of a newborn baby would be provided with an equal number of weeks, none of which would be transferable, according to The Guardian (10 July 2019).

The surprising statistic exemplifies a prevailing theme of the panel discussion, that men need to be front and centre of the change in attitudes to gender diversity.

The initiatives that have so far been adopted and have been proven to help reset the balance include mentoring, sponsorship, flexible working arrangements, developing pipelines and driving female talent, setting gender balance-friendly targets and ensuring these measures are assiduously maintained and monitored.

Diversity improves performance

While a McKinsey report published last year revealed that gender diversity made for a more than 21% improvement in company performance – add ethnic diversity and that number becomes 35% – the simple motivation announced by Sophie Fitton, until recently group head of corporate communications & international engagement at Centrica, is the fairness of it all.

“We are similar to most companies: at the bottom, it’s 50:50 but, as you move up, about 25% of the top management team are female,” said Chris Stylianou, chief operating officer, Sky UK & Ireland. “While boards are important, it’s more important to get women into the senior executive positions in companies, driving change and making key business decisions on a day-to-day basis.”

Across the railway network, “of the 237,000 employees in the UK, 13.4% are women; within Network Rail, it’s 17.5%, with a target of 20% by 2020,” said Ms Cooklin. “Across the Network Rail Board, three of 11 are female; across the executive leadership team, five are female, which is 36%. Within my directorate of more than 3000 staff, we are at 31%, spread evenly across the grades. That has taken a lot of hard work over a long period of time… If you don’t have a diverse workforce, you won’t have a high performing company.”

Centrica, like other STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) businesses in the U.K. has struggled to attract female talent. At Centrica, females make up 29% of the workforce and 17% of the board. Across STEM businesses as a whole, 89% of companies struggle to recruit employees, with, on average, any STEM business having 10 unfilled roles at any time, with a shortfall of 173,000 STEM workers in the UK. This costs these businesses £1.5 billion a year in terms of more expensive temporary staff and recruitment initiatives, according to Sophie Fitton.

Females within core stem businesses make up 23% of the Centrica workforce, according to Ms Fitton. “There is a lack of STEM university graduates, because it requires a high-level of education, which is expensive nowadays, and STEM doesn’t seem to attract as many women in universities.”

Engineering fares little better, according to Ms Shaw. “In engineering, 15% of employees are female, up from 11% a few years ago,” said Ms Shaw. “At National Grid, we are at 25% on the executive committee and 28% at management levels”.

My flexibility friend

Network Rail identifies employees with high potential early in their careers and is working hard to ensure there is an increasing number of females in that group.

National Grid has adopted reverse mentoring, acknowledging the importance of being able to ask for someone who is different to you, “who can help you think differently and challenge you”, according to Ms Shaw.

“Flexible working has worked well within my directorate”, stated Ms Cooklin. “last year we set a target for 8% last and delivered 14%”. This initiative has worked well because both men and women took it up; in my team, at least 50% of my top team have flexible working arrangements, including myself. The tone has to come from the top”.

Mr Stylianou agreed with this top-down approach and added that the responsibility should be target driven. “We took a big focus on flexibility as we know that women tend to own more responsibility for child and elderly care,” said Mr Stylianou. “We also paid careful attention to mentoring, because we know that men are much better at building networks and furthering their careers and always say they can do jobs when they lack the skillset.”

“We had to make quite a few changes, but I can’t pinpoint what worked in particular – I think it was a combination of everything, as well as vigilance – and patience,” he said. “It’s important to remember that shifting the mindset and culture takes time.”

Developing the pipeline and investing in high performing individuals is crucial, with Ms Shaw highlighting that National Grid identifies and invests in high performing individuals, and Ms Fitton noting that Centrica is also building a pipeline of female talent through the business.

Mr Stylianou and Ms Shaw were also adamant that the drive for gender diversity needs to be taken out of human resources. “It was only when the CEO said we were going to make this a business priority, with a 50:50 leadership target, that we made headway,” said Mr Stylianou. “HR has a very important part to play, but ultimately it has to be driven by the business.”

“With more men than women currently at the top of organisations, they are the ones with the power, so need to get behind this, even if they have to be told to do so,” said Mr Stylianou. “The message is more powerful if men are hearing from other men: we’re not taking opportunities from men, the aim is simply to level the playing field. You sometimes need to be quite blunt. I have had a lot of abrasive conversations. You have to convert people, and to do so you need be very clear. This firmly sits in ‘doing the right thing’.” Ms Fitton added, “It’s not the women’s job to sort out the women’s problem.”

Maternity and elderly care are headwinds, according to Mr Stylianou. “Some women will deselect themselves because it is challenging to balance work with things like maternity and eldercare,” said Mr Stylianou. “Organisations need to invest in processes and systems to support women – and men – in these areas”

“There will be bias, from men sitting at the top of organisations pretending they want to do this,” he said. “But, if the business is doing fine, they may not be willing to take the risk to even up the numbers.

“There are simple things that help, like 50/50 shortlists, making sure you have diverse interview panels, and looking at the language used in job descriptions so that you’re being inclusive,” said Mr Stylianou. “These might seem like simple things but can be hugely effective in terms of becoming an employer of choice not just for women, but for all”

The Panel

Marion Leslie, Managing Director of Enterprise, Refinitiv

Nicola Shaw CBE, Executive Director, UK, National Grid
Sophie Fitton, former Group Head of Corporate Communications & International Engagement, Centrica
Susan Cooklin, Managing Director, Route Services Network Rail, NED Electricity North West
Chris Stylianou, Chief Operating Officer, Sky UK & Ireland