HR needs to take the lead for aspiring women in the workplace

It may be International Women’s Day this week (8 March), but there is still some way to go for women in establishing leadership positions. While they are reaching critical mass in some areas, in most fields there has been little change in recent years.

Research from the Equal Opportunities Commission shows that women make up just 9% of the senior judiciary, 10% of senior police officers and 13% of editors of national newspapers. The lack of women at the top is all the more striking given that women account for nearly half the workforce, and significant numbers of women are swelling the ranks of middle management.

Yet of those women who have made it to the top, it is still too often the result of their exceptional strength of character and drive to achieve, despite significant barriers. The barriers, however, remain very much intact.

So why is this? In my view, there are five main reasons:

1. Lack of role models: Women are not prepared to take on roles if the only way they can do this is in the way they have been done before. If leadership positions are consistently occupied by men, women tend to count themselves out.

2. Unwritten rules and beliefs: Employers often fail to articulate what is really required in a role. Women make assumptions about the experience they need, and assume they should be of a particular age, gender or ethnicity.

3. Choice: Not every woman wants to be a leader. However, their choices must be based on facts, not perceptions.

4. Confidence: Girls and women are bombarded with information from the media, both implicit and explicit, which reinforces the view that they should not become leaders.

5. The glass ceiling: Despite the achievements of a number of women, the evidence points strongly to a glass ceiling that has remained intact.

So what can we do about this?

  • Radically re-communicate what is required for top jobs.

  • Talk honestly to groups of staff who may see themselves reaching leadership positions. Be clear about how long it might take to achieve this.

  • Don’t lower standards be sure to recruit on merit alone.

  • Listen without defensiveness to feedback from staff, staff network groups and trade unions.

  • Give honest feedback to both those who are unsuccessful, and those who achieve promotion. Plan development activities that contribute directly to business outcomes and their future career aspirations.

In the police force, there are many talented and able women. What they want is to be assessed on their merits. They want to be promoted because they are the best for the job, and for no other reason. They want to succeed without having to compromise having a family or managing caring responsibilities. They want to be judged as an individual and not as a collection of stereotypical feminine attributes.

Julie Spence, chief constable for Cambridge Constabulary and lead on the gender agenda for policing, sees a role in the police force as a good career choice for women. She believes that networking and role models are very important for women and also that they must take individual responsibility for their own continuing professional development.

At the National Policing Improvement Agency, our three immediate activities will be:

  • A review of all learning, development and leadership products and services

  • The development for the first time of a national people strategy for policing

  • A review of recruitment and promotion.

All of these will be underpinned by the principles of equality and diversity, and developed in consultation with our partners and stakeholders.

The future for women as leaders can be more promising if HR people lead the way in the workplace. We cannot afford to lose the talent of our incredible women. Never forget that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did – only backwards and in high heels.

By Angela O’Connor, chief people officer, National Policing Improvement Agency


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