To encourage women into senior roles (and to keep them there), we need to rethink our attitudes to women in the workplace, and possibly the workplace itself. And this is not just for women: to be effective, flexibility must be universal.
Women don’t leave their jobs because they lack ambition. Nor do they leave because they have children (although of course, some do).
Increasingly, they leave to set up their own business, or to have a greater purpose at work, and to create a better work/life balance. But research shows that some women find a flexible working structure can actually hinder their careers, if their employers see flexible working as simply working less.
At The Social Element, my 300-strong team are distributed all over the world, and we all work flexible hours. We focus far more on getting a job done, than spending the hours in an office. Most of us work from home; some work from one of our hub offices.
Flexible working has to be integrated to the whole business, not just a benefit given to a few employees. And that means creating a structure that can accommodate it.
It has huge benefits to the business. Not being fixed to a single location, or to set 9-5 hours, means that we can hire the right people for the roles, wherever they live, and whatever their circumstances. My Executive Team come from Aberdeen, North Carolina, Valencia and London – if we were fixed to a single office and working hours we wouldn’t be able to work together. Almost all of them have children of school age. This flexible approach means we can employ brilliant women and men who want to fit work around their family life, or who have caring responsibilities, for example. We’re widening the pool of people that we recruit from, and we’re less likely to lose women from the top level of the business.
Importantly, it’s not just women who must have flexibility. If we’re to achieve a better gender balance in our workplaces, we must create an environment where men can also do things like take their full parental leave, or have the flexibility to do the school run, or care for a relative. These things shouldn’t just fall to women. Flexibility must be universal to be effective.
If we do these things, businesses will reduce the number of women they lose at senior management level. And it’s not just the right thing to do. This approach makes financial sense. A study by McKinsey found that gender-diverse companies outperform financially by 15 percent (racially diverse companies outperform by 35 percent) compared to others.
No company is perfect. But every company can commit to offering a working structure that empowers every person to be their best, at work and at home.