Why equality is about more than numbers

Working women have been in the media spotlight recently after the publication of two reports on women in the workplace. Lord Davies’ report recommended that companies should consider setting targets for female representation in the workplace and another report issued by the Institute of Learning Management (ILM) revealed that women have “poor” career aspirations compared with men.

While it’s fantastic to see women at the top of the Government agenda, I think the challenge to British businesses is to ensure that in striving for equality in the workplace, we need to be careful not to see our successes through a single lens of hitting a target.

The ILM report raised an interesting and contentious issue. Do women really have “poor” career aspirations or is it that they just think differently about their careers than men? For women, a lack of confidence or self-belief when pursuing opportunities can often be the biggest barrier to their own development; the one self-limiting factor that prevents them from progressing. Often for women, it’s getting the “tap on the shoulder” that affords them this confidence. As such, sponsorship and coaching can be crucial to success, and at Asda it’s an important aspect of our business that we are working hard to build and showcase to colleagues at all levels.

For us, the key to really being able to demonstrate equality at Asda is driving the right culture within the business to ensure women want to work with us and, more importantly, that they believe they have the absolute support to help them achieve their career aspirations. We want to develop the pipeline of talent coming into and up through our business – be it a shopfloor colleague who has the potential to be an amazing store manager, or an admin colleague who could be our next commercial director.

Sarah Dickens
Sarah Dickins, people operations and policy director, Asda

For Asda, the business case for creating a pool of female talent across all levels is simple: 80% of our customers are women. To best serve their needs we ought to at the very least reflect our customers. If we are going to attract and retain the best talent in our business to meet the changing needs of those customers, we must also have a diverse leadership team in all senses of the word, not just based on gender.

As well as having a clear focus on how we want to coach and develop women within our business, and encouraging talented women to identify their career aspirations and how we can work with them to achieve these, we are also looking at the crucial nuances that are so important. For example, being more aware of scheduling “family friendly” meetings at times of day that don’t force colleagues to make the choice between meeting their responsibilities at home and being part of a team discussion. We also launched a “Mum2Mum” mentoring scheme earlier this month for colleagues going on maternity leave. The premise of the Mum2Mum scheme is simple – women who are going on maternity leave are given access to a mentor from within the business who is also a working mum. The scheme is having a hugely positive impact. We know that having a family is a huge transition, and being able to talk to someone about the realities of being a working mum and seeing how it can be done is hugely beneficial. It gives our colleagues the reassurance they need to know that the business is 100% behind them.

Our work is paying dividends – a recent colleague survey revealed that over 97% of female colleagues are proud to work for Asda and 94% know what options are available to them if they want to develop within the company. In addition, Asda was the only supermarket to be named as one of the UK’s top employers for women in a Top 50 list recently published by The Times. But we are not complacent and our Women in Leadership strategy is designed to unlock the female talent already held within our business – from the executive team to the shop floor. It addresses the key areas that help women progress – confidence, network building and flexible working.

The argument for encouraging more women to climb the corporate ladder is actually part of a much wider discussion around recognising the importance of diversity in business. Appointment decisions always have to be on capability and the best person for the job. Research clearly shows that businesses with a diverse colleague and management base perform better. For a business to be agile and innovative, and able to meet the ever changing demands of its customer base, it needs a leadership with a range of opinions, backgrounds and ideas.

Our economy does not have the luxury of failing to harness the talents of its diverse population. Whilst setting targets does create a goal and showcase a commitment to achievement, we cannot just focus on numbers, and must also take an honest look at our businesses and understand whether we really are as “inclusive” as we would like to think.

Sarah Dickins, people operations and policy director, Asda

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