Opportunity Now gender diversity award winners 2007

We all know that gender diversity in the workplace is a good thing, but it is so easy to pay lip service to it’s much harder to mean it.

Women don’t want special schemes, or the kind of treatment that smacks of tokenism. They want access to the kind of roles they deserve, and to work in an environment that allows them to reach their highest potential. For HR departments launching a diversity scheme, you will know only too well that you must secure buy-in from the top – and you will need to prove the business case – if it is going to stand any chance of success.

Opportunity Now is a body that helps employers build workplace cultures that are inclusive to women, and its annual awards celebrate organisations that have been successful in tapping the talents of both men and women.

Norma Jarboe, director of Opportunity Now, says: “Great minds think differently. To thrive and be successful as a business, identical people with identical views and experiences do not add value or aid creativity and innovation. Creating diverse workplaces where women can achieve their full potential, and businesses can benefit from their talent, is a win-win situation.”

Here, we feature six organisations that won an Opportunity Now award at the end of last month, to give you an idea of what is currently regarded as best practice in gender diversity.

British Airways (BA)

The airline jointly won the female FTSE 100 award (AstraZeneca was the other joint winner) for its commitment to women leaders.

In response to the Higgs Review – which made recommendations for the transparency and accountability of board members, particularly non-executive directors – BA reviewed its search and selection procedures to ensure that its non-executive directors were sourced from a wider talent pool.

Women currently represent 27% of BA’s senior managers and 36% of middle managers its maternity return rate is 92% and one-quarter of its employees work part-time.

Alison Dalton, BA’s diversity manager, says: “Diversity is part and parcel of our policies and practices, making it an integral part of business, rather than an afterthought. Central to our proactive and strategic approach are diversity champions across the business and listening to the views of our staff. The diversity on our board also contributes towards greater innovative and flexible thinking.”


The pharmaceutical company jointly won the female FTSE 100 award, owing in part to the fact that it works on the principle ‘what gets measured, gets done’.

The company trumpets the fact that it recognises diversity as a benefit to staff, the business, its customers and the communities in which it works. Key to achieving this is having a chairman who recognises that diversity extends to board composition and it ensures that diversity and talent management are part of the senior executive team’s objectives. Currently, one-third of the 70 senior managers reporting to the executive team are women.

Taking this approach has meant “a real push for equality and fairness”, according to Angela Hyde, vice-president of HR learning and development. She adds: “Our 2006 global employee survey showed that 63% of our staff believe that management supports equal opportunity for all employees, while 69% of women and 70% of men say they have not encountered any discrimination or bias towards themselves or others at AstraZeneca.”

University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield picked up the education sector award for its women academic returners’ programme (WARP). The university’s challenge was to attract and retain women in the traditionally male-dominated areas of science, engineering, technology and medicine, with the aim of sustaining its success and reputation as a research-led university.

In recognising the impact that maternity leave or carer responsibilities can have on a woman’s academic career, WARP offers financial support (£16,240) to returning staff. The money can be used flexibly – for example, to support research activities or cover teaching duties. The initial investment of £585,000 was approved by the senior management group in January 2006, and 33 women successfully applied for it in the first 12 months.

Rosie Valerio, director of HR management, says: “WARP sends a clear message to all that the university is committed to investing in women staff to further its core business success. It is an excellent example of how direct action to redress equality imbalance has very significant, tangible benefits to both the individual and the university.”

Britannia Building Society

The building society’s flexible working programme – called ‘Mutual Preferences’ – helped win the private sector award. When half of the company’s staff indicated in a 2003 satisfaction survey that they did not have the right work-life balance, it consulted extensively with employees and designed a scheme – driven by Lynette Beckett, change manager, group people performance – that includes flexible working, family leave, unpaid short-term leave and employment support.

The programme achieved buy-in from the top, and directors encourage the implementation of the policy by encouraging managers to have a good work-life balance, which has helped to change the culture.

The 2006 employee survey revealed that 91% of staff were satisfied that Britannia had helped them to achieve a work-life balance.

Sarah Emery, group diversity manager, says: “We are creating a culture where diversity is not just about ways to avoid discrimination, but is used as an opportunity to enhance the experiences of our people and our customers as individuals. We believe that highly satisfied employees are much more likely to deliver the experience that our customers deserve.”


Professional services firm KPMG won the City award for its flexible working programme. Flexible options for the firm’s 11,000 staff include shorter working weeks, home working, job share, glide time (flexing the start and finish time of work), unpaid leave and annualised hours contracts.

Two of the ways it has integrated flexible working are by devolving responsibility for making decisions about flexible working applications to people managers in the business and by establishing a network of flexible working champions, who are trained to advise and support managers in considering flexible working applications.

The HR team supports flexible working by discussing options and advising managers and those wanting to work flexibly. In the past three years, 76% of flexible working applications have come from women.

Sarah Bond, director of diversity, says: “There continue to be challenges in embedding flexible working in client-facing environments, which are sometimes perceived as incompatible with flexible working. We will continue to work at this – for example, by introducing new ways of working that deliver both for our clients and our people.”

Brent Council 

Brent Council was given the public sector award for the policies and practices it put in place to attract women to the organisation, and to promote them once they are there.

In the 2001 census, the council came out as the most ethnically diverse local authority in England and Wales, and as a result has put diversity at the heart of everything it does. Progress on equality and diversity objectives is monitored by the leadership group – the most senior level of the council.

When it launched its work-life balance initiative in 2002, 30% of the council’s senior officers (earning £50,000 or above) were women. Today that figure is 50%.

Val Jones, director of HR and diversity, says: “We have not pursued gender equality by making a ‘special case’ for women – the work-life balance initiative, for example, belongs to everyone. But we know we are a better council because we do gender equality well. We have boosted our reputation, increased staff satisfaction, driven down turnover and sickness absence, and saved money. All these factors help drive up the quality of the public services we provide.”


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