All employees are equal – but are some more equal than others?

By Harriet Croxton January 05, 2016

Women in Leadership06_side-by_sideMany organisations don’t offer any gender specific training and often women don’t welcome being singled out: men should be invited to debate on women’s issues and all employees should be offered training and a flexible working environment that is relevant to them.  These were just some of the valuable insights that came out of our Think Tank Dinner held recently in London.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has put the topic of Women in Leadership firmly back on the mainstream agenda. Her brand of feminism is much debated, but essentially she suggests that women, driven by gender stereotypes to be submissive, are missing out on workplace success due to misplaced insecurity, passivity and docility.

We hosted a Think Tank Dinner where we bought together female leaders working in the area of HR and Learning and Development to discuss the role of Women in Leadership. We aimed to understand the issues they face and how we, as HR and L&D professionals, can better support them.

The dinner was hosted under Chatham House rules and as such, does not reveal the participating individuals or organisations specifically. Contributing to the debate were representatives from the Banking and Finance, Leisure, Food and Beverage, Defence and Professional Services sectors.

This is what they had to say:

For the time-challenged here are the key points from the discussion in relation the challenges that organisations face around Women in Leadership:

  • Maternity leave causes pressure for businesses (some more than others) but increasing rights for men around paternity leave mean these pressures are no longer associated purely with women
  • Few organisations actually offer gender-specific training, and while it is often well received with more junior members of staff, more senior women are reluctant to be singled out
  • Where gender-specific learning is identified as a need, it is often being conducted under the radar because of the fear of raising questions around its exclusiveness
  • Men have a valuable contribution to make when it comes to talking about women in leadership, or any other diverse group; everyone should be invited to the conversation.
  • A good work-life balance should be something that is accessible to all employees, male or female.

Pressures on Businesses

There is no doubt that women’s role as primary parent, and the need to take maternity leave, has affected the direction of women’s careers. But maternity leave is also a pressure on organisations. For most it’s just everyday business; however there are some organisations that find this a bigger challenge than others.  Airlines, for instance, see it as a major issue. The role of cabin crew is popular with younger women, and due to long lead times for training and gaining licences to fly, should the whole crew request maternity leave at the same time it could ground planes quicker than a missing screwdriver.

In these instances, workforce analytics are absolutely key, and can be used to profile employees, marital status, age, etc and thus analyse risk.

With laws around paternity leave changing all the time though, these pressures are no longer purely associated with female employees. Men now get the chance to take time out of the business with their children too.

Leadership training for women

Only a few of the organisations at our dinner actually offered leadership development specifically aimed at a female audience. Those that did reported that this type of training seemed to be more acceptable lower down the business or with those in the early stages of management. This audience were generally more receptive to help around the specific challenges that can present themselves. However, once they had reached a certain level in the business there was more resistance as these women didn’t want to be singled out as different.

Research, such as that conducted by the Indiana University, Bloomington shows that women’s cortisol levels (the hormone associated with stress) increase when working in an all-male environment. This research lends itself to the argument that women should be treated differently, particularly when it comes to training and development, allowing them to learn and express themselves in a separate environment.

Despite evidence such as this, there was an overall feeling that people’s needs should be looked at on a one-to-one basis and learning and development departments should work to establish what gaps that person has in order to take them from A to B.  Everyone should be looked at as an individual and no two employees, male or female, should be treated the same.

Under the radar

One of our organisations at the dinner who operates in the Defence sector cited the statistic that only 20% of their workforce and 10% of the senior team are female. When considering offering courses specifically for women they recognised that this was likely to meet with resistance from the male population as they would question that there was no course specifically for them. In order to tackle this the organisation offered training more covertly. An example of this is where they developed a course that was targeted specifically at the first three months of any employee’s return to work following a period of absence.

The course aimed to support the employee during their reintroduction to the organisation; managing their confidence levels, team integration and new objectives, etc. In essence they were trying to capture needs of women returning to work after maternity leave, but the course was available to anyone returning after a period of sustained absence.

Men on Women in Leadership

The general opinion of our group was that men had a very value contribution to make when it came to talking about gender diversity, but rarely are they invited along to comment. Most women at the dinner had experience of women-only networks whether they are face-to-face or online, yet all of them said they would value men being included in the discussions. In no other diversity area – e.g. race or disability – would you have any sort of focus group or discussion that would not include the full mix of people.

It was felt that men whose wives worked and had senior roles were more understanding and open to the issues that women have in the workplace and were generally more accommodating and encouraging of creating a good work/life balance for all employees. It was assumed that these men were likely to be taking a more equal share of the home duties and childcare and were therefore more aware of what was needed to make things work.

It was observed that where women with children held very senior positions, they generally had a husband who looked after the home or had a less demanding or flexible role, proving that regardless of gender, people benefit from a strong support network behind them that allows them to focus on their role.

It was observed that men talk much more freely about gender diversity issues and seem to have it embedded; they consider it something that happens as a matter of course. Women feel, rightly or wrongly, that as it involves them, they feel awkward and slightly embarrassed by it and treat it more as ‘something that needs to be talked about’ rather than something that is just there in their DNA.

It was noted that when you reach out to get a male perspective on women’s issues, maybe about resilience, childcare, work-life balance, stress, etc. you discover that men have these issues too.  As Sheryl Sandberg says, ‘A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.’

Work/Life Balance

Without doubt one of the most important take-aways from our event was that our guests felt that it was important for all employees to have a good work-life balance. Men need the opportunity to take paternity leave, or be able to support an elderly parent and all employees without children should have the same opportunities, with access to flexible working hours, in order to pursue other interests etc

Thinking back to our first article from the Think Tank dinner, Engage them or lose them: holding on to your female leaders , we noted that many talented women were leaving businesses during reorganisations and mergers and often went on to run their own business or retrain to pursue new careers.  Why do men not take up these opportunities more? We debated that as men don’t get the opportunity to take a careers break to have children they generally get fewer chances to pause during their career and thus they don’t consider the opportunities that might be available to do something different.

This completes our two-part report from this stimulating Think Tank discussion – but the debate doesn’t end there. We’d love to hear your reactions to the issues discussed here, so please enter your reactions and reflections in the comments field – and if you’d like to discuss with one of our learning consultants how Lumesse can help your organisation with learning issues around women and leadership, please use our contact page to get in touch

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