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International Women’s Day: a female chief executive’s perspective

International Women’s Day, celebrated every year on 8 March, should be marked in the calendar of every business leader. It is an ideal opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements in different industries, while at the same time exploring ways to further accelerate gender equality.

For it is only through collective action and shared responsibility that we can drive a gender-balanced world.

This is particularly true in business, where managers often hold the key to professional opportunities and career progression. It is vital, then, that those in leadership positions take proactive measures to ensure that women are not hindered (intentionally or not) by obstacles not otherwise faced by their male counterparts.

As a window to the state of equality in business, financial services can offer a helpful glimpse of how far we are from achieving gender parity in the UK. The statistics here speak for themselves; in 2016, Virgin Money’s Empowering Productivity Report revealed that only 23 per cent of boards, 14 per cent of executive committees, and a measly 6 per cent of chief executives were female.

Having worked in finance for over 30 years, I can safely say that we are still a long way from complete equality. In saying that, however, we cannot ignore the great strides that have been made in recent years.

Achieving the right balance

Let us take a look at what we have achieved so far. Since I started in financial services, there are far more women working in the industry, and notably more in senior leadership positions. To give a general overview of the pace of this advancement, it might be helpful to take a look at the leading FTSE 350 companies. In the seven years between 2011 and 2018, the number of all-male boards fell from 152 to just five.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the underlying drivers behind this evolution, one thing is certain: we need to be aiming for a balance between supporting women on the one hand and encouraging positive discrimination on the other.

There are, of course, arguments to be made for positive discrimination (for example, implementing quotas to ensure that there is a perfect gender balance in a workplace). But I believe that it does not necessarily have to be the case that 50 per cent of boards, executive committees and CEOs are female.

Rather, it’s far more important that an employee receives a promotion or pay-rise based solely on his or her own skills, experience and aptitude. By filling a position on the basis of a person’s gender, there is a danger that the best candidate for the role is overlooked as a result, which in turn will present new challenges for companies.

Instead, practical changes need to be made to level the playing field and open up pathways into the financial services to everyone, regardless of their gender.

Making positive changes

Expanding opportunities for women in business naturally starts with the recruitment process. Whether it is conscious or not, human judgment is naturally clouded by bias, which might in turn act as an initial barrier for women trying to get into a traditionally male-dominated industry, such as finance.

Fortunately, there are solutions to this problem. For one, making the recruitment process anonymous by removing candidates’ names, addresses and schooling histories can ensure that competent and qualified women are not cast aside simply on the basis of their gender.

Further to this, it is important to look at the overall workplace culture surrounding gender equality. It might be the case that there is little awareness about the issue within a company, or else a lack of understanding about how certain company policies or attitudes disproportionately affect women.

Regular, company-wide meetings have an important role to play here; they give everyone the opportunity to voice their concerns, and actively work together to break down the barriers that might be inhibiting advancement towards gender balance.

At the same time, it is vital that any complaint about misconduct or sexist employee behaviour is dealt with urgently and in a professional manner. Employers must fundamentally establish that behaviour or language that is derisory or derogatory towards women will not be tolerated in the workplace.

Supporting working mothers

We also cannot avoid the fact that many women will become mothers at some stage in their careers. Unfortunately, the lack of support they get from their work is evident. According to a survey by MMB Magazine, a significant number – 37 per cent – of women who work at management level or above feel so unsupported and isolated on their return to work from maternity leave that they consider handing in their notice.

So how can companies accommodate this decision in order to prevent it from having a negative impact on women’s careers?

Organisations need to have formal support structures in place to facilitate a mother’s return to work. Flexibility must also be encouraged when it comes to allowing women with children to work from home, or at the very least set their own working schedule. After all, women should not feel pressured to choose between their careers or having children.

Moving forwards

I cannot deny the achievements that have been made since I first began working in financial services. Nevertheless, I urge business leaders to conduct a thorough review of their workplace cultures and explore ways to support women in reaching their career goals.

Whether it is preventing business meetings from being held at hours that are not feasible for women who must do the school run, or eradicating language that – perhaps unknowingly – belittles female employees, a proactive approach to gender equality is essential.

It will no doubt take time for societal attitudes to change, let alone before these attitudes translate into tangible transformations within the workplace. But International Women’s Day presents the perfect opportunity to reflect critically on our own business practices and make sure we are taking positive steps to advance gender balance.

Alpa Bhakta is chief executive of Butterfield Mortgages Limited

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