There is a piece of film-making theory called the bechdel test, which asks the viewer to consider how often two women in a movie talk about something other than a man. Depending on how you judge it, only about half of all movies meet this criteria. Popular culture still uses the stereotype of the pliant secretary or love-struck co-worker to reinforce attitudes that are, in reality, disappearing from most enlightened workplaces.
Throughout my career, it’s been my privilege to have led teams comprised mostly or wholly of women. My first boss was a woman and she taught a wide-eyed young graduate everything he needed to know about working in a large multinational company. Popular culture may not have caught up, but women play an increasingly central role in most businesses and are now the key players in some industries. But there’s still a long way to go and, in my opinion, one of a business leader’s crucial roles is to ensure that they continue to push towards equal treatment for the sexes in the workplace.
My critical hiring criteria is to treat all applicants equally and hire the best person for the job. It astonishes me that employers, whether consciously or not, would seek to exclude certain individuals. Thankfully, such practices are increasingly illegal and the requirement to treat all applicants equally is a standard part of most companies’ policies and procedures.
Woman have historically faced a number of challenges in the workplace beyond merely getting a job – the right to paid parental leave and equal pay for equal jobs being two of the most notable examples. In the regular day-to-day operations of a company, there is not (and should not) be any difference in how you manage women versus how you manage men. The biggest difference about managing women is that you have an obligation to spend time thinking about how you can work with legislation and company policy to ensure genuinely fair and equal treatment. The deck is stacked against working women in lots of ways and it’s part of your job to even those odds. Childcare is a notable example.
There remains an assumption in all societies that if a family has children, it will primarily be the woman’s responsibility to look after them. But the crucial factor here is the ability for families to choose how they split parenting arrangements. We need to continue the move away from the concept of ‘maternity leave’ and towards ‘parental leave’, as is the case in Sweden, where both parents get equal rights in terms of taking time to raise their children.
An employer might wonder if it’s all worth it – surely it’s just easier to go with the flow? I don’t believe that delivers the best results. All employees, male or female, deliver better results if they’re happy and motivated. In my last role, I had to deal with multiple instances of pregnancy among my staff. In each case the first question to the employee was “what do you want to do?”. Only when they had laid out what they wanted did we look at company policy and local legislation to identify what we could offer. In each case, the employee returned to work motivated as they had felt in control of the experience, an outcome that surely every employer wants for their staff – male or female – in any situation.