Women remain an untapped source of talent

Skilled workers that companies rely on to drive their businesses forward are becoming increasingly elusive, and it’s likely that thousands of companies across the UK will face significant skills shortages in the coming years.

Manpower’s 2012 Talent Shortages Survey found that, even though many companies are still cautious in terms of hiring, one-third of employers across the globe have already identified a lack of available skilled talent as a significant barrier to business performance. At the same time, research from the Fawcett Society has found that unemployment among UK women has risen to a 25-year high. So, why is it that even though businesses are crying out for a skilled workforce, women remain a largely untapped source of talent?

We live in the “Human Age”, an era defined by the skills and potential of people, so having a diverse talent pipeline that captures abilities across different ages and genders is more important than ever. If HR professionals continue to overlook women as a key source of talent, it could affect the performance of the businesses and indeed the whole economy for years to come.

There’s no doubt that gender equality has been a key challenge for businesses for many years, but in an ageing population the issue will only get more pressing as female workers will increasingly need to juggle the demands of work, and caring for children and elderly relatives.

In order to tackle the issue of attracting and retaining female talent, it’s vital that employers take a close look at their existing talent management models, which may need to be completely redesigned to respond to this change.

This may seem like a massive task for businesses, and will certainly require investment and organisational change. But if employers fail to address gender equality now they will almost certainly reach a talent crisis point in a few years, which will inevitably involve significant organisational upheaval at a cost and pace that the business may struggle to manage.

Diversity has far-reaching implications

By 2050, it’s expected that there will be almost twice as many people over the age of 65 as there are under the age of 15 in Europe. With an ever-shrinking talent pool to choose from, it’s vital that organisations make the most of the talent they do have – they simply can’t afford to keep excluding women, whether intentional or not.

Rather than seeing gender equality as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) “tick box” exercise, they need to recognise the ticking time-bomb that is at stake by not making a conscious effort to unlock women’s potential. There is already strong evidence that having a diverse talent pipeline positively affects business performance, but the looming skills shortages mean that diversity needs to become a strategic objective for the whole business rather than being limited to the HR or CSR function.

Existing practices can unintentionally exclude female talent

People practices and work models that employers have in place are often outdated, preventing women from demonstrating their true potential, and even worse, excluding them from the business altogether. One area that employers really need to improve on is attracting women back into the business after their maternity leave. A study by a law firm Slater & Gordon in early 2013 found that 30% of female workers felt that they didn’t “fit in” anymore when they returned to work. Even worse, 20% felt their co-workers didn’t understand what it was like juggling new motherhood with work.

Including practical solutions, such as maternity coaching and flexible working options to improve performance, and diversity is a good starting point for tackling these concerns.

Maternity coaching is a very effective way of retaining female talent. Women who receive coaching while they make the transition from maternity leave to returning to work are not only more likely to return, but will come back with confidence and a real focus on making a contribution to the business. The coaching also enables them to have an understanding of their position within the business, which is integral as it may differ slightly to the role they had before they went on maternity leave.

Some forward-thinking businesses have already started to implement maternity coaching at a senior level, but it’s safe to presume that it’s not being done for all workers. Returning to the workplace can often be quite daunting after going on maternity leave, so it’s important to prepare all women for the practicalities of their return as well as giving clear expectations on their day-to-day role and overall contribution to the business.

Flexible working options

Flexible working options are also extremely beneficial to women and help them strike the right balance between their personal and professional lives. Most women we have worked with wanted to work flexibly when they returned to work after maternity leave, so it’s important to think how this can be accommodated – whether it’s through extended hours in fewer days, the option to work from home or simply working fewer days.

The sooner organisations recognise the roadblocks that their female employees face, and that women represent an untapped talent pool that can play a pivotal role in coming years, the better. However, women should also be looking to take their future into their own hands rather than waiting for their employers to make the changes, as highlighted in a new book “Lean in – Women, Work and the Will to Lead” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. The more female role models there are in a business, the more likely that business is to attract and retain female talent. Female role models can be hugely influential in business by creating different discussions, introducing new practices and fresh perspectives, and providing inspiration for female employees.

By developing female talent, organisations can take a positive step towards future-proofing their businesses against skills shortages that are becoming increasingly prevalent. Talent investment is integral to the success of any business and it’s vital that businesses take action now to tap into female talent and build a strong, diverse talent pipeline for the future.

XpertHR has further information and resources on flexible working, maternity leave and equal opportunities.

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