Why equality for women is all about men

Tracey Walters, head of diversity, Brent CouncilThe issue of equality in the workplace is always emotive, if your recent coverage on equal pay – and the subsequent bundle of reader letters – is anything to go by.

In our experience, ensuring women are equal in the workplace requires action on many fronts. Partly, it is about clearing space for female staff to succeed – making sure they have places on leadership courses, for example.

You might also offer flexible working, take an uncompromising stance on bullying in the workplace, ensure recruitment panels for senior jobs are gender balanced to avoid bias, and get external benchmarking to check your progress is genuine.

But if you want a truly women-friendly culture in your organisation, by definition that attitude must be shared by both men and women. If you want to win over hearts and minds on practices that make workplaces better for women, you need to reach men too.

One approach is to have a senior male role model to act as a gender equality champion (ours is our chief executive, Gareth Daniel).

This sends a strong message to all staff that gender equality is a core value of the organisation – and that also applies to men. But you need to go further, by making men realise practices that support gender equality are in their interest.

Take flexible working and work-life balance schemes. Traditional ways of working – long, inflexible hours – assume people do not have caring responsibilities. They are therefore particularly detrimental to women, who often care for a parent or a child.

Flexibility tackles some of the practical barriers to women’s advancement and, if handled right, can lead to a dramatic rise in the number of women managers.

Many organisations have still to introduce such schemes, even in local government. But when they do, they may make the mistake of launching them from a family-friendly platform. If the focus is on women returning from maternity leave, it is seen as a perk for a lucky few, or a soft option for those who are not committed to their career. Both the women and the policy become stigmatised and get pushed to the margins.

Women want employers to have positive practices that work for them, but they do not want to feel singled out or like a “special case”. The fact is that flexible working helps men as well as women, so why not emphasise that?

This way, work-life balance is seen by staff as being for everyone, and it takes root in the organisational culture. Ultimately, this delivers more for women.

At Brent Council, some gentle positive action forms part of our approach. For example, we set aside a certain number of places for women each year on our mentoring scheme. And we deliberately launched our work-life balance initiative from a diversity platform, rather than a family-friendly one.

The first phase of the initiative focused on flexible working patterns such as job shares, flexi-time and compressed hours. Instead of making this about ‘new mums’ with childcare responsibilities, we linked it to a string of issues that affect men as much as women – combating stress, religious obligations, study and self-development.

We then launched a second phase, with an explicit family-friendly theme. Measures include workshops and networks for carers and new parents. Again, this risked being associated exclusively with women, but we stressed that dads and male carers could benefit too.

In 2002, when we first started looking seriously at gender equality, only 30% of senior management posts were held by women – about average for local government. In September last year, women held 50% of senior management posts.

We are not complacent and we know there is more to do. But ironically, we have found a significant part of making progress for women is about how you treat the men in your organisation.

By Tracy Walters, head of diversity, Brent Council

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