Maggie Berry: Is HR doing enough to support women in the workplace?

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I was recently involved in conducting a survey, in association with Intellect, which revealed that women feel they are receiving less support from HR departments than from line managers and colleagues. The survey found that when asked to rate the support they received as a female employee, respondents saw HR departments as the least supportive area. Only 36% rated them as good or excellent. This compares poorly with other groups such as line management (47%); direct boss (55%); colleagues (60%) and juniors (47%).

More worryingly, however, 27% rated HR departments’ support as ‘poor’ or ‘non-existent’.

So is this an accurate reflection of the situation in HR departments today? Where has HR gone wrong and what can HRDs do to ensure their departments are supportive enough of women?

The first problem many women seem to encounter is that they perceive HR departments as being too focused on procedure and inflexible when it comes to tailoring policy to an individual, or even coming up with innovative policies for women in technology careers.

Another problem is that there are concerns among women that the technology industry provides progressive policies in theory but not in practice. For example, while flexible working hours are available, they’re not promoted and are seen as career limiting and can have an adverse effect on those seeking promotion.

So how can HR departments up their game and start to be perceived as supportive of their female staff? And more importantly, why should they? Is this just about gender quotas and favourable treatment?

The short answer is no. There is a real, cogent business case for achieving a gender balance in the workplace. Studies have shown time and time again that companies with women at board level outperform those without. It’s hard to believe that in 2011, we’re still busy debating the reasons behind creating an environment where women can succeed in the workplace rather than investing our efforts into breaking the glass ceiling.

So what can HR departments do to regain the confidence of their female employees?

HR departments need to ensure that initiatives to ensure equality are more than just a box ticking exercise. The way forward seems to be:

-A more individualistic approach. While people shouldn’t be given special treatment, HR also needs to take into account that a “one size fits all” approach to policy may be restrictive and may cost the business some of its strongest female talent. While standards do need to be maintained, adjusting a 9 – 5 working hours policy to an 8 – 4 policy, for example, in order to allow full-time hours to be realistic could mean the difference between a strong female employee staying on or choosing to look elsewhere.

-Encouraging people to take up flexible working and investing time into making it part of the cultural norm for people to be able to work without neglecting their other responsibilities. This will work towards removing any stigma or belief that flexible workers put in any less effort, removing this as a factor in decisions about promotions.

If the survey results reflect the situation on the ground, then we have a long way to go before women are fully supported in the workplace. The example needs to be set by HR departments, rather than HR being seen as a last resort.

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About Maggie Berry

Maggie Berry, Managing Director, Women in Technology

Maggie Berry is Managing Director of Women in Technology, the career site and recruitment service dedicated to increasing the number of women working and achieving in IT. She has been involved since Women in Technology’s inception in the autumn of 2004 and manages all aspects of the website and the networking activities Women in Technology organises.

The network now has nearly 7,000 members and the job board is helping a wide range of investment banks and technology firms to recruit more women into their IT divisions. Her background is in technology recruitment within the financial services where she spent four years as a recruiter with McGregor Boyall Associates. Prior to this she worked for NatWest as a Graduate Banking Manager, providing financial advice to final year university students and graduates. Maggie is a graduate of the University of East Anglia.

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One Comment - Write a Comment

  1. I am really concerned that it appears in the article that it is HR’s responsibility to support female workers. In my experience it is the line managers who should support all staff working for them , regardless of gender.

    This assertion that it is up to HR furthers the argument that some line managers might have, that HR does stuff “to” staff, rather than with them.

    I think we should explore the role of HR further, and maybe test the question: “Is HR working for the management?”. In my organisation we are very clear that HR works for the organisation, but also supports all staff.

    If a female employee required support from the HR Dept, they would receive it in exactly the same way as any other employee. Blaming HR for not carrying out a line management job feels very unjust.

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