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The changing world for women at work

Jun 22, 2018
According to the World Economic Forum, at the current rate, it will take women 217 years to reach parity in the workplace. Julie Fenton of EY, explains what needs to change for women in the workplace.

We have all read the research and know it to be true, women's advancement and leadership are central to business performance and economic prosperity. However, the World Economic Forum is currently predicting that it will take 217 years until women have parity in the workplace. That's clearly too long. Change is required to speed this up. The question is, what needs to change for women at work?

This is a great question and one that, in my experience, organisations are struggling with. We are:

  • working in a world where technology is evolving at great speed, where the way we work is changing; and
  • employing people who view their career path differently than we did 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
Despite this, the fact remains – we are not progressing and retaining woman in our organisations through to leadership positions as quickly as we should be. Many organisations are reviewing the data to understand the “problem”; an essential first step, and forms the basis of any robust diversity and inclusion strategy, of which gender is a central element. 

Knowing when and why women leave an organisation; if they are being promoted at the same rate as men; and the gender composition across all levels of an organisation are all key pieces of information that help shape the solution to the problem. There are some key organisational and tactical changes that need to be made and these changes are a business imperative. To quote my own firm’s view on the gender issue - it is not about fixing the women.

Organisational change

Organisations need actively support women though helping them see the opportunities – helping them understand what top jobs are open to them, and creating an with an environment that expects women to occupy leadership roles. This helps junior women see and believe in the path before them. This is particularly important when women are mid-career, when the challenge to accelerating a career can coincide with other life events such as having a family.

Organisations also need to look at their work environment and ensure it is supportive. An organisation needs to work to eliminate conscious and unconscious bias. Practical steps are needed to create a workplace that is more supportive of women would help and encourage more women to move up the ranks.

So the questions is, what are those practical steps? What needs to change?

McKinsey & Company, in conjunction with the 30% Club, has been working on this issue in professional services firms. Three areas that have been identified and where real change can be made on the ground today are around flexibility in the way we work, active sponsorship and in work allocation.

First, organisations need to actively support women by helping them see the opportunities – helping women understand what opportunities are open to them, combined with creating an environment that expects women to occupy leadership roles. This is particularly important when women are mid-career, and the challenges of accelerating a career can coincide with other life events, such as having a family. It also helps junior women see and believe in the path before them.

Second, progressive policies around flexible working need to be implemented and, most importantly, supported by all. They cannot be seen as just a part time arrangement to accommodate women. Informal flexibility – where, when and how men and women work, should be encouraged and supported. Organisations need to equip their people to work flexibly, as well as making it culturally acceptable. It needs to be able to happen practically and as a matter of course. 

Third, an organisation needs to look at the work environment and ensure it is supportive by working to eliminate conscious and unconscious bias. Practical steps are needed to create supportive workplaces to help and encourage more women to move up the ranks. Initiatives such as sponsorship and formal mentoring programmes can be extremely beneficial for women. Organisations need to formalise their approach to ensure female talent is identified and actively sponsored by senior executives for progression.

Finally, and I think most importantly, organisations need to challenge the allocation of work to women. Are women getting the jobs that give them stretch, and the chance to develop and be noticed? Are they getting business development opportunities? Are business leaders having open conversations with women about this or are unconscious bias and good intentions keeping challenging opportunities away from women in the workplace? These conversations need to happen.

Julie Fenton is EY Assurance Partner and Partner Sponsor of the EY Women’s Network Ireland.