Business overtaking academia on achieving gender equality

Earlier this month a group of MPs took a swipe at UK universities for not doing enough to improve the under-representation of women in senior positions in university science departments. The report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee said it was “astonishing” that despite multiple initiatives and programmes designed to improve gender diversity across academia so little progress had been made to improve the gender balance in higher education. Noting that only 17% of senior science professors were women, the chair of the Committee, Andrew Miller MP, was unequivocal in saying that it was “time for universities to pull their socks up“. However, with only 14% of university Vice-Chancellors being female, the general esteem in which women are held in UK higher education appears to be rather low.

The picture elsewhere in academia is just as alarming. Of the seven government-funded Research Councils there is not one female chair, and just one single female chief executive, the recently appointed Jackie Hunter. Only 5% of the Royal Society’s and 4% of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Fellows are female. To the Royal Academy of Engineering’s credit it has recently nominated a woman, Dame Anne Dowling to become its first female president later this year. But it can be little wonder that fewer women than men stay, or even enter science and engineering jobs, when the professions’ most eminent bodies are so unrepresentative.

These uncomfortable examples of where women are marginalised from leading roles in the public sector are somewhat contrasted with the actions being taken in the private sector. David Cameron’s ‘women issues’ within his own party are well known, and while little can be done to arrest the problem of too few women in Parliament between elections, the paradox is that government has started to take the issue of gender inequality seriously in the private sector. It has asked Lord Davies, the former Chairman of Standard Chartered to look at the barriers preventing women from reaching senior and boardroom-level roles. Rather than the ‘stick’ of championing enforced quotas, Davies has taken the ‘carrot’ approach of seeking to bring about a culture change within the business community, and has recommended a “voluntary business-led strategy to bring about a culture change at the heart of business”, with many businesses and headhunters signing up to a voluntary code of conduct to establish best practice in gender diversity at Board level.

I think that this is the right approach. We all want to see equality of opportunity among people of equal talent, but compulsion inevitably breeds resentment and any business that thought it was being forced to make changes to please the government would soon become intransigent to progress. As Lord Davies says, “placing additional regulation on business will hinder working practices and we doubt would achieve the desired outcome in any acceptable way”. Setting out a direction of travel and working with stakeholders to achieve it, is a far more sustainable way to achieve gender meritocracy in the workforce.

And businesses have responded in a positive way. The most recent report found that progress had been made. As of March 2014 women accounted for 20.4% of FTSE 100 and 15.1% of FTSE 250 board directors, up from 12.5% and 7.8% respectively in February 2011. Purely from a business perspective it makes sense to source your talent from the widest possible pool of people.

The factors preventing women reaching senior positions are varied, complex and often interconnected. As Davies has found these include a lack of flexible working, difficulty in reaching an acceptable work-life balance within a long-hours culture and disillusionment at the lack of career progression. We can either ignore the fact that many women have children, and having done so will take a career break, leaving a whole generation of talented women unable to fulfil their potential, or we can accept the situation and deal with it. It remains in the hands of business to continue to demonstrate real progress and champion best practice; otherwise the next step could be unwanted regulation and legislation. And I suspect that organisations who fail to do this will find themselves quickly left behind.

As recent public outcries and boycotts of companies like Amazon and Google have shown, consumers are increasingly willing to take a stand against what they consider unethical and unfair business practices. Given that the most diverse stakeholder base a business will connect with is that of its customers, those that are seen to pay only lip service to changing the culture at the top, may well find they are the target of the next boycott. While many UK universities have signed up to voluntary initiatives to improve gender diversity in science, such as the Athena Swan Charter this has patently not worked. The Equalities Challenge Unit (ECU) – the body set up to support equality and diversity in higher education – appears to have been asleep at the wheel. It needs to become a greater champion of universities that do things right and call out those that fall short. The ECU and the rest of UK academia have some learning to do from the private sector on gender diversity.

2 responses to “Business overtaking academia on achieving gender equality”

  1. Francine says:

    Very emotive article. I know from conversations with employers in the engineering sector that the cost to small businesses of women taking maternity leave has a huge impact on decision making at the recruitment stage. The hit doesn’t end after the maternity leave is over. Women will likely need time off when their child is sick, when they have school events etc.  The woman may also decide she needs to work part time.  The business must then find a way to make two employees job-sharing work. Women have every right to expect to have a career and for the employer to make reasonable adjustments for them to also have a family. It will however, continue to put men off hiring women whilst the business takes the financial hit. In my opinion if the government addressed this issue of cost, especially for smaller businesses and start-ups, it may allow employers to consider the best person for the job, rather than worrying about the cost of hiring a woman. 

  2. Oliver O'Hanlon says:

    Thank you for your comment. I totally agree. there is no getting away from the fact that many women want to start a family. businesses are certainly in danger of overlooking many, many talented women just because of the ‘inconvenience’ of maternity leave etc. im not sure how pervasive flexible working hours are across business (probably differs from one to another) but that surely has a bigger part to play than hitherto.