We have to challenge head-on the belief that men are better suited than women to top jobs

Claire McCartney, Senior Policy Adviser, Resourcing and Inclusion 

Earlier this week, I was asked to respond to new survey findings, commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust and reported in the Guardian, that found that a significant minority of professionals with responsibility for recruitment and/or HR decision-making (15%) believe men are better suited to senior management roles than women.  

The findings also underlined the fact that younger recruitment and/or HR decision-makers were more likely to hold this view (18–40 year olds) than their 40+ counterparts. Furthermore, one in five said they would be reluctant to hire women they thought might go on to start families. 

I found these findings shocking and depressing in equal measures. There is no question that women can and should hold senior roles and that has been reinforced by my experiences to date in the workplace. I’m also passionate about raising my two young daughters with that same ethos. Not only that, evidence shows that increased diversity at the top of organisations can foster enhanced innovation and performance. It is troubling that despite the widespread evidence of the capability of women in leadership positions, significant gender bias against women persists in the workplace. 

So why are these concerning views still being expressed and what more needs to be done to tackle gender-biased perceptions at senior levels in the workplace? 

Positive results on FTSE Women Leadership 

Earlier this year, the government-backed FTSE Women Leaders’ Review found that FTSE 350 firms had reached their gender target of 40% of women on boards, three years earlier than the proposed deadline.  

The report tracks the progress being made by Britain’s largest companies, with more than 30,000 employees, on boards and in leadership positions, in efforts to break down barriers to progression for women into senior roles.  

This progress has also secured Great Britain second place when compared internationally with 11 countries striving to improve gender balance.  

However, the findings show that there is still more work to do to achieve gender parity in leadership positions and the focus now needs to be on increasing the number of women in executive committee roles and their direct reports to build a strong pipeline of female talent for the future.  

This chimes with recent CMI data which suggests that if the UK workplace was to be representative of the wider working population, there would need to be 560,000 more female managers.  

In my blog earlier this year, I outlined some of the Behavioural Insights’ Team backed recommendations to support greater gender equality.  

These include: 

  • setting internal targets for gender representation and equality 
  • appointing equality diversity and inclusion leads or taskforces 
  • promoting flexible working in job adverts 
  • using structured interviews in recruitment and promotions 
  • using skill-based assessment tasks in recruitment 
  • making expectations around salaries and negotiations clear 
  • transparency in promotion, pay and reward processes 
  • sharing local support for parental leave and flexible working 

These recommendations are also supported by several of our policy calls in our CIPD Manifesto for Good Work  in relation to flexible working and reforming shared parental leave and extending paternity/partner leave and pay and our inclusive recruitment guidance. 

Stereotypes and discrimination holding progress back 

It seems, though, that the most immediate action we must take as a profession is to tackle the beliefs, biases and discrimination that are damaging progress and holding women back at work. 

We need to educate all workers and particularly those in decision-making roles on the importance of gender equality at every level and take active steps to address gender stereotypes and biases head-on.  

Given that pregnancy and maternity discrimination as well as other forms of discrimination still persist, Government should also consider bringing responsibility for enforcing workers’ rights under the Equality Act 2010 within the remit of a properly resourced single enforcement body to help tackle discrimination at work. This body should have capacity to proactively investigate complaints and require employers to take action or face enforcement activity and potentially fines or awards of compensation for non-compliance. 

Ultimately, we need to be taking a systemic approach, identifying and tackling the beliefs, organisation culture, systems and processes that are preventing progressive change on gender equality happening at the pace that is required. 

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