Fixing the broken rung:
action to improve gender balance

20 December 2019

Last month’s Hampton-Alexander Review, concerning the improvement of gender balance in FTSE leadership, reports positive if rather slowly moving trends, but indicates that there is still much work to be done. In particular at the very top of organisations there is a distinct lack of female CEOs to ensure businesses have strong pipelines of talent enabling progress to continue. The narrative seems to be less about the glass ceiling and more about, in the words of the also recently published McKinsey and Company report “Women in the Workplace 2019”, a need to fix the broken rung”.

The data driven Hampton-Alexander Review is unsurprisingly full of headline grabbing and important statistics, for example, how close the FTSE 350 is to achieving its target of 33% women in senior leadership positions by the end of 2020. It also provides useful insight into the specific action some of the top companies are taking to improve gender equality as well as research from the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London on inclusive workplace cultures and behaviours.

In my view, much of the action being taken to improve gender equality could and should be used to improve inclusion and diversity in every area, not just gender.

So what is business doing to improve gender balance?

Lloyds Banking Group, Card Factory, Direct Line Group and Marshalls use diverse shortlists. Brewin Dolphin ensures panels responsible for promotions are gender balanced. Direct Line Group uses “language decoders” to ensure job adverts don’t alienate women, particularly for roles typically dominated by men. Burberry runs unconscious bias training for all colleagues.

Lloyds Banking Group and Burberry have programmes in place to develop talent pipelines. At Lloyds Banking Group members of the Board sponsor women considered to have the potential to reach Group Executive Committee or direct report to GEC roles within one to two years. It also ensures that women are moved to roles which allow them to fill gaps in their experience which might act as an impediment to progression.  Both Brewin Dolphin and Direct Line Group have networks to provide support.

Card Factory offers flexibility with working hours without the need for permanent contractual changes.  

Brewin Dolphin and Diageo have enhanced parental leave and pay schemes which employees are entitled to regardless of gender. Employees at Diageo are eligible for 52 weeks’ parental leave with the first 26 weeks fully paid. Brewin Dolphin has instigated coaching for employees before taking parental leave and on their return to work to enable a smooth and successful transition into and out of the workplace.

Many companies have a focus on creating a culture of inclusivity and acceptance. Professor Rosie Campbell, Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London points out that:

Where there are hostile workplace cultures we can’t simply ask women to lean in and try harder to reach leadership positions…. we need to build inclusive environments where colleagues can raise challenges confidently, diverse leaders can flourish and everyone can produce their best work.

The King’s College research focussed on the need for diversity to go side by side with inclusion, ensuring everyone feels valued in the workplace. Clearly employees cannot feel valued in a workplace in which “micro-aggressions” (behaviour which ranges  from  interrupting/talking over someone to insults or swearing) are tolerated and it is not correct to lay the blame solely on the individual protagonist; workplace culture plays a key role.

The #thisisme movement at Direct Line Group is an internal social network for employees to share what makes them unique, with a view of creating a culture where diversity is valued, respected and celebrated. Burberry emphasises inclusion: recognition and respect of diversity of thought, approach and experience. It seeks to embed an environment of creativity and belonging.

A key theme in the Review is that if we are to see real change, leaders need to welcome diversity and reward an inclusive culture. 

The action being taken by these top companies is welcome and necessary. Employees are individuals and there is no “one size fits all” solution to get more women to the top of organisations. As the McKinsey report notes, gender is just one of many aspects of women’s identity that shapes their experiences. It states that women of colour, LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities distinctly have the worst experiences overall. The McKinsey report refers to the experience of women in corporate North America but this is no doubt just as true in the UK. Companies need to address the unique challenges that different groups of women face and listening to women is likely to be the key to this.

Many companies are putting substantial resources into trying to improve gender equality but unfortunately there will always be employees whose individual experience will not reflect the management vision of an inclusive culture. In my experience, allegations of discrimination and harassment are generally being taken far more seriously than they were five or ten years ago. The fact that gender balance is in the spotlight has no doubt contributed to this positive development. 

About the author

Niki often acts in complex cases requiring her to navigate overlapping issues such as equal pay, discrimination, harassment, sickness absence, performance and misconduct.

She has particular experience of representing employers and employees in the higher education, retail, media, professional and financial sectors.  

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