The glass ceiling turns concrete?

I will feel equality has arrived when we can elect to office women who are as incompetent as some of the men who are already there

Sex and Power. It sounds like one of those blockbusting novels on sale at WH Smith art Gatwick Airpoirt. It is, in fact, the title of the Equality and Human Right’s Commission’s annual investigation into women in top positions of power and influence across the public and private sectors.

I’m aware that at first glance this particular blog might seem to be of minority interest in the merchanting world, but bear with me.

The Commission have found, they say, “a worrying trend of reversal or stalled progress”.

The report shows that in the five years it’s been running, there are fewer women in top posts in most areas of business than there were.

A comment I saw from a director of BT, who happens to be female, said that what is needed to improve the situation is for businesses to become more flexible in their attitudes towards employing women.

However, in the last five years, businesses have become more flexible because they’ve had to, thanks to the flexible working regulations. Businesses now need a jolly good business reason to refuse an employee’s request for flexible working.

And while this applies to both men and women, the majority of requests for flexible working have been from women for reduced hours.

In the past, if you wanted to get on once you returned from maternity leave you bit the bullet and went back full-time. If you wanted to spend more time with your children you found another job where you could work part-time.

It strikes me that perhaps there are fewer women going through the glass ceiling now partly because they have other options, and partly because business attitudes towards part-timers haven’t changed, even though there is now an obligation to consider it. I’ve done it myself: traded in promotional prospects for the chance to spend Fridays with my children.

Even the words themselves imply some kind of lesser status: we don’t talk about someone as a ‘flexible worker’, we call them a ‘part-timer’, even though the workload often isn’t that much less. I’ve seen it happen: someone tries to fit five days’ work into three because that’s what the business needs, they fail, get demotivated and quit, leaving the business with a hole where a suitable qualified, promotable person used to be.

Businesess have exacting needs and there needs to be flexibility on all sides. A builders merchants (see, I told you I’d get there) needs to be open when its customers require it to be, if that’s 7am then someone has to be there.

If too many people see flexible working as meaning part-time between the hours of 10 to 4, the business will suffer and flexible working will still be seen as part-time, part-effort.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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