The road that leads to a place of no ceilings…

This week marks International Women’s Day on the 8th March and organisations across the Country will be shining a spotlight on the amazing contribution women are making to the workplace and those that have broken barriers.

With the rise of social media, never before has the issue of gender equality been at the forefront of discussion and debate, yet over recent years whilst there has been much press on the subject within Local Government, we haven’t seen a fundamental gear change in how female progression is managed.

It is a far wider culture and systemic issue that goes beyond recruitment and development issues, that requires a clear plan and long-term commitment to address; becoming everyone’s responsibility. It is often uncomfortable to shine a light on the ‘business case for change’ around inclusion, in this case focusing solely on gender and senior executive roles, the data reports that in the West Midlands, only 9% of Local Authority Chief Executive roles are held by women, which means 91% of roles are held by men. There is a need to share the facts, because in 2020 that should ring alarm bells that as a sector we are not doing enough to foster gender equality.

Often when we share those figures, it is countered with a challenge that below that management teams are more representative, however we have never had the data to truly understand the position at a Regional level and later this year WME will be producing a series of insight reports to explore this in more detail across all protected characteristics. Elected members and officers agree that we need to represent the community we serve and there is some way to go to reach the reputation of the community in which 50% of the population that are female; we need to start at the top as addressing female representation in the boardroom requires a long-term strategy around four key areas:

Create inclusive organisations – There needs to be a consolidated plan and the recognition that female progression is not just of benefit to women or a women’s issue, it is everyone’s responsibility, and everyone can make a difference. The UN’s He for She global solidarity campaign holds at its core that male colleagues are important allies for achieving this change and the champion, sponsor and mentor female colleagues to progress. There are some great resources and case studies available on website about how your organisation can commit to this global moment. There are many challenges in our organisations about creating a culture for

What gets monitored gets done In order to define a progression strategy that is right for your organisation, understanding the data and demographic of the organisation as it is now and for the next 10 years is important to set realistic targets around representation. Many organisations do not succession plan effectively, particularly on how they seek to change the workforce demographic to represent their community. Balancing the ‘hearts and minds’ of leaders is an important factor, whilst there is huge benefit of wanting to win the ‘hearts’ of managers to understand why supporting and investing time to progress the next tier of future leaders, not everyone will become a pro-active advocate for this and by setting targets around progression, this can focus their ‘minds’ on the actions needed to achieve an organisational target.

Get more women in the talent pipeline There is an opportunity in Local Government to develop future female leaders.  An impact of austerity more broadly has been a reduction in the breadth of development initiatives aimed at future senior leaders and there are few specific programmes or initiatives aimed solely at supporting female leaders.  Often there can be a challenge that ‘women don’t want to be treated differently’ and whilst the sentiment is right, women don’t need “special” development, what female executive development programmes do well is to address some of the particular barriers, many of which are often subtle, can be linked to unconscious bias and gender stereotypes, by discussing these and bringing them into the open we can help equip future female leaders to be aware of them to progression for female leaders. In both the NHS and Police they have strong and established national and local networks for female leaders that help to support, nurture and champion progression. We don’t have this infrastructure in Local Government and as a consequence there is no coordinated voice or action around issues that impact on female progression.

Understand the barriers and remove them There are many barriers to female progression to top-team roles.  Recent research around the impact of the menopause on the workforce has been significant and breaking the taboo around it, which could have long lasting implications. We know the impact that menopause has on women at the peak of their career, which usually occurs at a time when male counterparts are progressing their careers, leaving people behind, with debilitating physical and mental symptoms that act as a barrier to progression. Another example focuses on recruitment, there are often more barriers here that can be more easily removed such as, adverts can be scanned for gender bias using new software, recent research suggests 44% of female candidates can be put off executive roles by the language used to describe the job and organisation.

The risk as leaders is that we focus on the here and now and our attention only focuses on the issue of female progression on one day a year – so as part of your organisations commitment to International Women’s Day this year, why not consider ways to keep the issue in the spotlight. We need to make changes for future generations now.

At WME we are unique in local government, we have an all-female leadership team and extended management team, not by design, but it is often commented on and we intend to make sure we use the platform this gives us to not only champion female progression, but the importance of inclusion more broadly and having a workforce that represents the community we are here to serve. Inclusion is central to our new vision and five year strategy for the Region.

Article By:

Rebecca Davis, BSc MSc FCIPD
Chief Executive, West Midlands Employers


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