Hello SOTGC community,
2016 has seen many leaps forward and steps back for women in the workplace. Theresa May has become the UK’s second female Prime Minister, while Hillary Clinton is the Democrat presidential nominee in the USA, and yet women remain the minority in politics and in public service (even in Canada, women hold only 46% of senior posts). Actresses have brought conversations about wage inequality into the foreground, but still the female reboot of Ghostbusters has inspired an unbelievable level of vitriol.
And quietly, in the midst of this, many companies have continued to introduce and develop schemes to counteract inequality in the workplace. Whether encouraging more women to apply, or seeking to raise more women into senior roles, we have seen some real success.
There’s no single scheme – no magic formula – that can by itself fix all obstacles that women face at work. However, by introducing a variety of schemes that support female employees at every stage of their career, advances can and will be made.
Education and outreach
When can you start changing assumptions about women’s place in the workplace, especially in industries like science and tech? Well, it’s never too early, and addressing negative beliefs while girls are still at school is essential. Both university departments and companies – including global tech giant IBM – run outreach programmes, giving talks and holding activity days aimed at persuading girls they can have a future in these sectors.
It’s hoped that these days can help improve equality in the workplace at its very foundation: the number of women applying for these jobs. The statistics are stark: for example, only 15.8 % of engineering undergraduates in the UK are female, and they go on to constitute only 9% of the engineering workforce. And as of 2014, women made up only 13% of computer science students.
Outreach programs can produce positive results. The University of Birmingham reports that the majority of girls who’ve so far attended their ‘Girls in STEM’ days – promoting science, technology, engineering, and maths – have said that they were now more likely to go on to study these subjects. They might not all do so, but seeds are being planted that could grow fruit.
Plus the more programs like this take off, and the more their message is reinforced by teachers and parents the rest of the year, the more results we should see.
Mentoring and network schemes
Finding a mentor and developing your contacts is key to moving onwards and upwards in your career, and to feeling supported in your role. These are things that can be done under your own steam, but women sometimes find it more difficult to do so.
There are a range of reasons for this, including the difficulty involved in balancing after work events with childcare commitments, the fact that there are generally fewer senior women available to become mentors, and the hesitance of senior men to mentor a female colleague. Rather than a result of misogyny, their reason might be that they are unsure how to approach such a relationship; they might typically take a male mentee for drinks, but can they take the same approach with a woman, or would it appear inappropriate?
By running formal and endorsed schemes, companies can begin to tackle these difficulties. These schemes might include running events at lunchtime, rather than after hours, connecting women throughout the firm and industry, or actively training the mentors themselves.
Some schemes deliberately only connect women, while in others mentors can be both male and female. There are advantages and drawbacks to both. On the one hand allowing more junior women to find female role models is important, but shouldn’t come at the expense of cutting them off from the chance of being mentored by a male colleague. On the other, if male mentors are unable to understand the challenges their female mentees face, then they might not prove to be that helpful.
There are also limits to the success of these programmes: mentorship schemes have been strongly promoted in many companies, but haven’t led to a surge of women bagging senior positions. As of 2015, women held 67% of entry-level management roles, but made up only 43% of senior managers. This dropped even further to 29% at director level.
In order for this to change, women need to find mentors who won’t just communicate with them, but will act as their advocate when opportunities to advance crop up. In short, they need sponsors, not just mentors.
Return to work schemes
Although there are still steps to be taken regarding maternity leave and flexible working for new mothers, several companies have taken huge steps forwards in recent years – with policies like offering keeping-in-touch days so women don’t feel cut off from the team during their time away, and introducing shared parental leave, allowing time off to be split between both partners.
However, women who choose to take two or more years off, often to look after children or elderly parents, face considerable difficulties re-entering the workforce. These women often have significant experience, but might face doubts both from others and in their own minds about their ability to come back at a senior level after so long away. This contributes to the drop in numbers of women at higher grades in the workforce.
Return-to-work schemes address this issue. Some are similar in concept to an internship: a short-term role, often working on a project in combination with training, and aimed at those looking to refresh their skills and learn new ones.
A growing number of companies are introducing programmes aimed at those who’ve taken a significant career break. These include Goldman Sachs pioneering ‘Returnship’ scheme, launched in 2008, and Deloitte UK’s Return to Work programme, which is part-time, runs for 20 weeks, and includes several networking opportunities. Deloitte aims to retain at least 80% of participants as permanent employees.
These programs currently help only a fraction of women facing the dilemma of how to re-join the workforce; however, they can be seen as a significant step forwards.
Unconscious bias training
In November 2015, Microsoft made its internal Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) program available to the public. Every employee at the tech giant was expected to have completed the training by the end of the calendar year, and it’s hoped that others around the world will find it useful in their own diversity and inclusion efforts.
The program’s aim is to make people more aware of their own inherent prejudices, the way they impact their interactions with others, and thus how they can change their own behaviors. Similar courses have been introduced at Google, Pinterest, and Airbnb.
One of the greatest assets of UBT programs it that they can and should take intersectionality into account. Equality will only be achieved when all women have an equal footing with all men, regardless of their ethnicity, disability, sexuality, and gender identity. Therefore, it’s necessary to understand and counteract all forms of prejudice.
However, even leading supporters of UBT see it as only having a limited effect. The head of global operations at Airbnb, Varsha Rao, called the training a ‘step in the right direction’ rather than a ‘silver bullet’; it starts conversations, but doesn’t conclude them. And despite Microsoft’s efforts with UBT and other schemes, the statistics tell their own story. Women make up less than 25% of its workforce, and 61% of employees are white.
Changing the way people think is very important, but must be backed up by other schemes aimed at helping those facing inequality at work. Only tackling the problem at all angles will result in success.
Have you benefitted from any of these schemes? Are there any we’ve missed out? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment and share on your social media.
Claire Kilroy is a content writer for the UK’s leading graduate recruitment agency, Inspiring Interns. Check out their website if you’re on the hunt for internships and graduate jobs in London and beyond, or looking to hire a graduate.