“I believe it is time for us to focus on the real value to be found in our gender differences in today’s highly networked economy, rather than striving for parity in the workplace”, states Geraldine Gallacher, Managing Director of The Executive Coaching Consultancy.

“When you look at the statistics on how many women have made it to the top of their profession, you have to question whether our focus on treating men and women as the same has really worked. It’s not just in the large corporates, but also in most professions, where women lag behind in both number and earnings.”

BBC research released on 29 May highlighted that women are under-represented in senior roles across the workforce, for example making up 13.2% in the judiciary, 14.2% in further education, 16% among FTSE 100 board directors, 16.6% in the police, 29.7% in the news media, and 34.7% in the civil service.

Geraldine Gallacher led a roundtable discussion on 30 May on the topic of parity versus diversity. The roundtable was hosted by Deutsche Bank and attracted attendees from organisations including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, BNY Mellon, Bingham, Carat, the Home Office, JP Morgan, LaSalle Investment Managers, PwC, Sodexo, Standard Chartered and Wragge & Co.

The discussion centred on the best ways to engage senior management to drive through positive change in the workplace; the rise of flexible working; the importance of networking; moves away from traditional command and control mechanisms towards more collaborative ways of working; and whether with more emphasis being placed on supporting women during the mid-phases of their careers, is enough being done to support and mentor women at the start of their career?

The group generally felt that organisations in the UK preferred to work towards aspirational targets rather than set quotas for gender equality. Targets and reporting accountability were felt to focus managers’ minds and spotlight where potential gaps lie. There was also a feeling that headhunters need to be encouraged to provide more diverse candidate slates, and that changes need to be made to expected role experience/expertise for some senior roles so as not to exclude women who might be more likely to have functional rather than revenue generating expertise.

“Equal Discrimination legislation came into place 30 years ago and although there has been some progress, it’s just not fast enough,” comments Geraldine Gallacher. “Indeed, if we continue at the current rate it will take another 30 years to achieve parity. I wonder if we are looking at the problem from the wrong angle? I believe we need to start acknowledging our differences rather than focusing on our similarities. Rather than women feeling like they should act more like men, my experience of coaching both male and female executives is that women’s more collaborative style and more prudent approach to risk appears to match more closely to today’s workplace where connectivity is all and caution is the mood of the moment.

“There are several crucial areas of work where men and women generally differ widely in their approach. For example, in interviews women will tend not to push themselves forward in the same way as men. During annual appraisals women tend to proffer their development needs while men focus more on their strengths. Women are often particularly uncomfortable promoting their achievements or building their profile. Women tend to be naturally good at being supportive, collaborating and communicating with others, and sharing credit for success. These are all qualities that will be needed in highly networked future organisations, increasingly marked by more remote working. Organisations require trust and empathy, with the aim of partnering with suppliers and clients (and even competitors at times) to produce joint solutions.

“In the drive of recent years to treat men and women equally, discrimination has to an extent been forced underground and career paths are still for the most part vertical, as opposed to a more flexible lattice framework that would allow both men and women opportunity to forge ahead, change role or take time out, to adapt as their family priorities change over time.

“If men and women are viewed entirely equally then working mothers can appear only to bring to the table less available time, less availability to travel and less perceived commitment. But change is underway. Demand for more flexible working is increasing. Skills such as collaboration, flexibility and creativity are becoming more highly valued. A traditional female aversion to IT is shifting. The long hours culture is shifting too. There is a renewed interest in diversity to avoid ‘group think’, and a greater focus on risk management. Innovative returnship programmes are being piloted by companies to encourage valued former female employees to return. Lobbying on these issues has intensified, for example the work done by The 30% Club to increase female representation in boardrooms.

“The cost of losing women at their peak, and training up someone else in their place, can run extremely high. A strong and progressive employer brand will also attract the best employees of both sexes. This is not just about properly managing and supporting employees through maternity leave. The ‘brain drain’ of female talent can happen at any stage, and forward-thinking firms need to give careful consideration to supporting women throughout their career journey with timely coaching and training initiatives.”