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More than just ‘The mummy track’: Why flexible working is the key to a diverse workplace

Janice Atkinson for The Daily Mail
19th March 2012

Last week saw the release of a report by the Institute for Leadership and Management entitled “Women in Banking”.

The title alone suggests that it probably won’t break new ground in the field – and sure enough it doesn’t. The first sentence sets the tone for what is to follow: “Employee diversity offers a proven route to increased innovation and organisational performance”.

Really? If that is the case, and given that business will usually seek out any competitive advantage, why are we still talking about women in the workplace as an issue at all? No-one has managed a satisfactory explanation to that yet.

The report reels off quotes and stats which support the line that women have a terrible time in banking and that banking must change. The authors even conclude in their ‘something must be done’ section that banks wishing to increase the flow of female talent should set targets for women, even though the vast majority of men and women surveyed for their own report reject such quotas, targets and special treatment. Men and women hate positive discrimination and yet no-one seems to listen!

The fact is that working in the banking sector, as in many other sectors, and particularly in the top jobs, is very demanding. This is unlikely to change. The hours are long and many of the roles are intellectually demanding and mentally exhausting. Can women do these jobs as well as men. Of course they can. Will they choose to do so? Perhaps not.

So the more interesting elements of the report are the results that are not highlighted: half the women surveyed say there is no barrier to progress for women, and even more men agree. Six out of 10 women don’t believe that the glass ceiling exists at all.

But does this report give us any guidance as to how to build the workplace of the future? Over two-thirds of men AND women feel that flexible working would help their careers, and this is where the Coalition Government can be proactive. Flexible working shouldn’t be seen as the ‘mummy track’ or even solely about parents – it must be embedded in the mainstream. It is the first nail in the coffin of presenteeism and it enables and encourages a diverse workforce of men and women.

The second key change must be in parenting. Some women interviewed for the report suggested that they ‘need a senior women role model they could identify with, rather than a woman who has given up everything to get to the top’. Who is going to tell them? To get to the top in any industry is hard; it requires making difficult choices and setting priorities.

Historically, this challenge has been borne by women more than men. We need to change that. We should make having children a joint endeavour rather than one solely for women. Hence the Coalition Government’s changes to parental leave are so important.

Banking is a key part of our economy and it should be at the forefront of meeting the needs of the next generation workforce. Talking about ‘women’s stalling careers’ doesn’t inspire, it isn’t leadership and it is not where our efforts should be focused.

We need to focus on creating a level playing field when it comes to family life and making flexibility commonplace and widely accepted in the workplace. Women are not stupid. They will decide whether or not they want to reach the highest levels of banking. All we can do is listen to those coming through the organisations and make it as easy as possible to everyone participate and succeed.

If you run a company and are confused about the changes in parental leave, get in touch with me via the website or let me know via this site.

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