Ann Pickering: Bridging the gap for women in the workplace

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Ann Pickering 1

How has legislation contributed to gender equality and what more can be done to improve the legislation?

The Davies Review is certainly making a valuable contribution to gender equality in the workplace, even in the simplest terms of raising awareness of this critical issue. Lord Davies’ follow-up report published in March on the representation of women on FTSE 100 boards showed that genuine progress has been made in tackling gender diversity, with numbers of women in boardroom positions up 8%. Although this is extremely welcome news we need to start seeing women as employees – not ‘female’ employees. If this doesn’t change, the Davies Review is in danger of becoming just another numbers game.

Some people have suggested using a quota system to help with achieving gender diversity, what’s your opinion on this?

This is becoming an increasingly pressing issue, particularly in light of the recent news that if the UK misses its 25% target, we could be subjected to EU-enforced quotas. In a meritocratic society, any move to enforce gender quotas would signal a backward step for both British businesses and British women. If businesses are to reap the benefits of a truly diverse workforce, they must take action to nurture women at all stages of their career to create a strong pipeline of talent. Maybe then we can finally stop talking about ‘the gender issue’ and start building better businesses.

How does an organisation maintain a balance in recruiting the right person for the job and gender diversity?

It shouldn’t be an either/or situation. We should always strive to recruit the best person for the job, whether that’s a man or a woman. Women want to be – and should be – recruited for roles on the basis of their talent, not as a means of ticking a gender diversity box.  It’s therefore vital that organisations invest time and resource to recruit talent from the widest possible pool of people.

In your recent article with HR review, you mentioned mentoring schemes for women to act as a career catalyst, can you describe how this can be achieved?

I’m a huge believer in the value that mentors can bring – either formal or informal. Having a mentor allows a woman to tap into someone’s experience and learn from someone who has been where they are.

My first mentor was Dame Hilary Cropper, CEO of Xansa. She was my informal mentor throughout the 12 years I spent there, teaching me business skills and commercial awareness, while also advising me on a more personal level on the importance of self confidence when working as a woman in such a male-dominated sector. The open dialogue between us was incredibly valuable to me, and I’ve continued to apply the things I learnt from her throughout my career.

It’s why at O2, we’ve launched a number of initiatives to support women within the business and create a truly diverse workforce. For example, our Women in Leadership Programme pairs young female employees with more senior women in the business to develop the skills and confidence they need to progress to the highest levels.

Your article highlighted a negative need for women to fit into a masculine culture, how do women rise above this and become themselves at the workplace?

The sad reality is that many women are still feeling the pressure to conform to outdated stereotypes. While of course women have their own part to play in pushing past stereotypes, all businesses need to take responsibility for ensuring their female employees feel comfortable being themselves and are absolutely secure in the knowledge that their gender won’t hold them back.

Mentoring schemes can go a long way in helping to instil this self-confidence by giving them a sounding board with which to air problems and gain advice. Implementing good flexible working policies is also crucial to show that women with children are at no disadvantage, and to facilitate their role as a working mother.

Do you think that to some extent, women are holding themselves back in terms of breaking the glass ceiling?

Absolutely not. Our research on women in the workplace has revealed three quarters of women are deliberately changing their demeanour to succeed at work. The very nature of this conscious behaviour change suggests what we now need to do is create environments that allow women to break that ceiling by being themselves, rather than by changing the way they interact with their colleagues.

We’ve also worked with Women in Wireless, a volunteer-led organisation which develops female leaders in the tech sector to show that many women do still believe it’s harder to succeed as a woman than as a man. Organisational culture was regularly cited as a major barrier to progress in the industry, and this is something businesses absolutely have to address in order to allow everyone in their workforce to meet their true potential.

How has O2 benefited from an inclusive culture?

At O2, we believe that a diverse and inclusive culture isn’t just morally right, but makes complete business sense.  We serve over 23 million customers every single day. If we’re to support the needs of each and every one of these customers as best we can, we have to have a workforce that truly understands them. After all, how could a workforce made up of white, male 30-somethings understand the intricate needs of a young single mother buying a product from one of our stores?

That’s why we’ve taken decisive action to foster and create an inclusive culture for all our people, at all levels. Whether that’s launching our Women in Leadership Programme to help support rising female talent, rolling out our Family and Carers Network or providing flexible working practices to help our people work in the way which best suits them, workplace diversity is too important to ignore.

Interview by Odira Ndulue, HRreview journalist

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