Having come so far since the mysogynistic offices of Mad Men, one could be forgiven for taking as given that in our modern and liberated society, wages would be equal, women could easily play the dual roles of mum and boss, and businesses would be full of women in senior roles. In fact, the recent announcement that Shared Parental Leave will come into effect in 2015 would suggest that today’s world of work is utterly egalitarian, with little distinction between the experiences of working women and their male counterparts.
And yet, recent research by O2 has shed light on the progress that’s being made on the journey towards true diversity. Three quarters of the women we spoke to admit they change their behaviour or appearance to succeed professionally and half say they deliberately adopt a completely different persona at work. These are not small numbers.
More worryingly, many of the women we spoke to said they feel the need to adopt what they consider to be more ‘masculine’ characteristics at work. Citing reasons such as wanting to appear more professional and confident, wanting to ‘dispel female stereotypes’ and wanting to feel equal to their male counterparts – it’s clear that many working women in the UK don’t believe it’s possible to succeed at work by simply being themselves. As both an HR Director and a working mum of two, this made for particularly uncomfortable reading.
So what’s the answer? While of course, as working women, a certain amount of responsibility lies at our own door, I believe that the onus is on all businesses, big and small, to take action to increase the number of women at all levels, and to create an environment where everyone – men too – feel able to be themselves at work.
Having a truly diverse workforce isn’t just about what’s proper and fair, it also makes complete business sense. All businesses need to do more to show employees that it is their individuality that is valued, not their ability to mirror the behaviour of someone else.
A number of simple measures can make all the difference when it comes to giving employees the confidence to be themselves at work. Looking back at my own career, the female CEO at the first company I worked for was a fantastic role model. She gave me the courage to know I could be myself at work, and that’s what we need to be doing for the young women coming into our businesses today. It’s only natural that young women starting out in their careers might feel uneasy about how best to portray themselves. Without role models to look up to or programmes in place that give them the confidence to be themselves, young recruits may well start thinking about what they need to do to impress, mimicking the behaviour of senior men and women who they perceive to be successful or, as our research suggests, ‘ruthless’ or ‘alpha’.
Another key measure is providing a culture where flexible working is seen as a positive, rather than a negative. Throughout my career I’ve been lucky enough to work for organisations that have meant I’ve never missed a parents’ evening or a school concert. It’s about businesses making it clear that you can marry up your personal and professional life and still be successful.
Diversity has become a buzz word, rarely out of the papers and always a hot topic for debate. And we are making progress. There are now a number of high-profile women at the head of global organisations, for example Joanna Shields at Tech City, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and Mary Barra at General Motors. As the debate around workplace diversity looks set to continue into 2014, it’s not enough to simply get the maths right. We need to ensure that all the men and women in our business come to work every day confident in the knowledge that they’re there because of what they as individuals can bring.
Article by Ann Pickering, HR Director, O2