Making a Comeback?

With the continuing debate about workplace discrimination and the gender pay gap, it’s easy to forget just how much life has changed for working women over the past twenty or thirty years. I was vividly reminded of that when I came across a book aimed at women returning to work in the 1990s, written by my mother (who was a journalist and author specialising in careers) to accompany a BBC Radio 4 series of the same name.  Making a Comeback by Margaret Korving hit the Sunday Times Business Books top ten in 1991, and was written very much from the viewpoint of a working mother, as alongside sound advice on how to identify your skills and what training might be available, it also provided suggestions for how to juggle home vs work.

Modern conveniences such as freezers and microwaves were highly recommended, as was the use of timetables splitting responsibilities with family and friends so that washing, cleaning and childcare were all covered, so that the woman could go to work whilst continuing to run the house.  At the time, there was predicted to be a shortage of school leavers going into the workplace, and therefore employers were keen to attract a different kind of employee – the Equal Opportunities Director of the Midland Bank at the time, Anne Watts, wrote a foreword encouraging readers to return to work, saying that “enlightened employers will value your maturity, develop your skills and make you a very welcome ‘returner’”. The view then was that many women would have given up work completely on having children, and might only be thinking about returning once their children were at school.  Of course at that time, taking maternity leave might well have coincided with the introduction of new technology into the workplace so the fear of lacking computer skills referred to in the book was very real for many women.

The big thing that’s changed since then of course is that it’s now the expectation that women will return to work after maternity leave, although I do think that many of the other challenges are the same, especially when it comes to juggling work and home.

One of the major challenges that still affects women returners is the issue of confidence. I have worked with a number of hugely talented, highly competent women who on returning from maternity leave have plunged into a real crisis of confidence.  These seem to be rooted at least in part in redefining how they view themselves, and of managing the conflict many feel between work and home. Some have felt great guilt towards their teams because they are working shorter hours, believing that they are somehow ‘letting them down’, whilst others have struggled to adapt to the changes which have taken place in their absence, whether that’s about changes of clients or changes in the seniority of their colleagues.

As a manager, it took me some time to recognise what was happening – because I didn’t view them any differently, I didn’t understand that some women felt differently returning to work after maternity leave.  If we are to truly address what we now clearly know is the negative impact on women’s careers and salaries post maternity leave, then we need to build programmes and initiatives supporting women on their return to work. We need to build post-maternity induction schemes that go beyond ‘do your flexible hours suit you?’ to restore confidence, add skills and empower women to reach for career success alongside motherhood.

Golin London has partnered with former Starcom MediaVest director Liz Nottingham and f1 recruitment’s Amanda Fone on the Back2Businessship returner programme for the past two years – an initiative that supports parents struggling to re-enter the workplace after taking a career break. The programme combines career planning, help on how to approach the jobs market, confidence building sessions and practical advice on how to manage your first 90 days back in the workplace. What a great idea, and kudos to everyone involved for quietly getting on with an initiative that has the potential to make a real difference to many women.

The Golin London scheme is aimed at women who have been out of the workplace for more than three years – but what’s to stop other agencies taking elements of this programme and adapting it to support any woman returning to work after maternity, parental or extended family leave?  Every agency worth its salt will have a decent induction scheme for new employees, to which they really ought to be adding a return to work scheme. It’s time we provided practical support to restore confidence and accelerate women’s professional development and job satisfaction post-maternity leave. Let’s do it.

Time to build some bridges

It’s hard to ignore really, when the majority of newspapers and broadcasts highlight today’s Institute of Fiscal Studies report showing that on average, women earn 18% less than men. Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party was on twitter this morning pleading with journalists keen to show ‘balance’ in their reporting not to field interviews with experts arguing that women choose to “put motherhood ahead of career” and that therefore it’s our own fault that we are paid less.  She’s right. Should we all stop having children altogether? Is that the only answer to addressing this issue?

As it happens, fewer women are having children. The birthrate in Europe is continuing to fall, with the only region bucking that trend being Scandinavia where – you’ve guessed it – there’s generous parental leave, subsidised childcare and a real focus on gender equality.  And, as our population continues to age, there’s a demographic timebomb just around the corner – the proportion of people aged 85+ in the UK is expected to rise sharply over the next 50 years.

But I digress. When it comes to narrowing the gender gap in the workplace, we know what the problem is. The pay gap widens once women return to work after having children (by the time your child is 12 years old, your hourly pay could lag behind that of men by as much as 33%), and it’s not just about parity of salary, it’s about parity of opportunity. Mark Crail, content director at XpertHR was quoted in the Guardian as saying “the gender pay gap is not primarily about men and women being paid differently for doing the same job. It’s much more about men being present in greater numbers than women the higher up the organisation you go. Our research shows that this gap begins to open up at relatively junior levels and widens – primarily because men are more likely to be promoted”.

Let’s be honest, the gap sometimes happens because of experience-lag. A man and a woman start work at the same company on the same day. Two years later she takes maternity leave and he doesn’t. When she returns he’s got three years’ experience and she’s got two – simple maths. But is it beyond us to create upskilling programmes that will help women returning from maternity leave to catch up?  If men are more confident when it comes to asking for a payrise or a promotion (which many studies have shown they are), it’s then a double-whammy for a woman returning to work. A bit less experience, someone who’s less skilled at asking for what they feel they deserve and bingo, the gap starts to widen.

It’s not all about having children and taking time out anyway, it’s about finding ways to change the way that we work so that we can accommodate greater flexibility for everyone. In the agency world, it’s not uncommon for clients to insist that they only want one point of contact. And it’s usually clients holding the biggest budgets (and therefore the largest agency teams) asking for the single point of contact.

I do get it, the fact that having lots of people asking you for information and to make decisions can be incredibly distracting when you’re busy enough as it is, but what happens within the agency is that staffing decisions get made sometimes on the basis of whether or not someone can be that 5-day a week client contact.   So, I have a fantastic client handler who’s ideal for the role, just the right experience and likely to be a good match from a chemistry point of view, but she’s working three days a week – what do I do?

Well, sometimes you can push back but often you can’t, not if you want to keep the business and keep the client happy.  And so another gap starts to open up for a woman who is bright, talented, hardworking and someone with a real future in the industry, even though a bit of flexibility from the client would mean I could pair her with someone and together they would be an even better answer for the client’s requirements.

As leaders we need to be constantly alert to these issues and modify our approach to address them. Equality isn’t something that just happens because of legislation, it’s something that happens when we think creatively about how to coach, enable, push and empower talented individuals to reach their full potential. We can’t always close the gap completely, however much we want to, but we must work harder to find ways to bridge it.

The race is never done

As I write, Britain’s team of athletes sit second in the Olympics league table, and their achievements speak for themselves. Simply competing in the Olympics marks them out as the sporting elite and to win is the pinnacle of many years of hard work, physical and mental, so it’s not surprising that stepping onto the podium to finally clutch that hard earned medal is an emotional moment.

When we were opening our office in New York, one of the candidates in the running to head up our US business was an Olympic gold medal winner. He had great experience, but the fact that he’d won in an elite sporting competition – really ‘the’ elite sporting competition gave him real cachet. You see, it’s not so much the physical achievement as the mental toughness that’s so attractive. In order to compete and win at that level, people need to have an intense focus and incredible drive – you have to really believe you can do it. Look at Mo Farah – he fell over in his 10,000 metres race, but he got up, got going and won the race – and, as he said to reporters afterwards “I was asking myself: Is the race done? Is the race done? I thought: ‘No, I’ve worked too hard for this’.”

In business, there are always times when you fall over, always times when you don’t win the pitch you really wanted to win, when revenue isn’t where it needs to be, or you don’t manage to hire the candidate you thought would be the absolute key to turning the company around.  When the chips are down, it’s all too easy to feel sorry for yourself, especially when it feels as though everything’s out of control. It wasn’t Mo Farah’s fault that he tripped, but instead of focusing on where he went wrong, what he did was to dig deep and focus on where he wanted to be, not where he’d come from.

Analysing your mistakes is important so you can learn from them and, hopefully, you won’t make the same mistake again. Getting stuck in a loop berating yourself about them is different, so after a proper analysis, move on and take the learnings with you and leave the self-blame behind.  The thing that makes truly successful businesspeople (and entrepreneurs) is an ability to bounce back, learn from failure and move forward without compromising their appetite for risk, or indeed their self-belief.

If you don’t believe in yourself and your ability to win, nobody else will do it for you. By all means find a good coach and/or mentor to help you cross the minefield, but you’re the one who has to keep putting one foot after the other. When Mo Farah was out on the track picking himself up there was only one person who could help him get to the finishing line, so he told himself the race wasn’t done.  Be inspired by his example when times are tough. The race is never done.

Time to practice what we preach

I’ve worked in healthcare communications for more than 20 years and in all that time I don’t believe I’ve ever interviewed, let alone hired anyone with a disability.  Every office I’ve worked in has been fully equipped with facilities for people with disabilities including lifts, ramps and disabled toilets, but I can’t recall seeing a single person who needed to use those facilities.  I’m also pretty sure I haven’t worked with anyone living with visual impairment or indeed with anyone who has hearing difficulties, for example.  Attending the first Cannes Lions Health Festival I was blown away by a speech from Francesca Martinez, a stand-up comedian who has cerebral palsy (but who prefers to describe herself as ‘wobbly’), but I’ve never come across anybody working in our industry who is ‘wobbly’ or otherwise coping with disability.

When you consider the debate across the communication industries about the need to reflect the society in which we live, and the fact that in the UK there are more than 6.9 million disabled people of working age (approximately 19% of the working population, according to the Disabled Living Foundation), my experience is startling, and I am sad to say that I am not alone.  Just this week Sara Hawthorn, owner of PR agency InFusion Comms, wrote in PR Week that “after almost 10 years in the PR industry I have never knowingly met another PR professional who has any kind of disability and that needs to change.” She’s right when she says that there’s a stark lack of conversation around inclusivity and how to create a positive culture around disabled PR professionals.

I’m a big proponent of women’s equality in the workplace, and as I wrote earlier this week, there are important campaigns running in many agencies and holding companies to support gender diversity, as indeed there are about LGBT rights and providing equal opportunities to BAME communities, but where are the equal access campaigns for people with disabilities? I don’t mean physical access, I mean access to careers and opportunities – although let’s not forget just getting to the office can be a mountain to climb for wheelchair users or anyone with a physical disability who needs assistance getting on and off trains. Imagine if you had to book assistance 24 hours in advance, for every train, every day – twice a day – and if you’re unfortunate enough to have to use Southern Rail for your commute you’re totally stuffed before you start – but I digress. The widespread introduction of flexible working policies across many agencies though means that more and more people are able to work from home as the traditional desk-bound model of working fades away, and surely this is another reason why now, more than ever, we can and should accommodate people with differing physical abilities.

As an industry we’re getting much better at supporting people coping with mental health problems (although we’ve still got a long way to go) and if you’re diagnosed with a serious illness most employers are fantastic at helping you to stay working and employed, but we need to find ways to open doors for people living with disabilities.  As healthcare communicators we often speak for and on behalf of people coping with disability, so why aren’t we employing disabled people who can share their lived experience with us and be part of our teams? When we pitch for business, we’ll often seek out somebody living with, say, psoriasis or diabetes to help us understand the impact this might have on their lives, and we can often find people with those types of experiences working within our agencies – but finding an employee who’s living with disability? Pretty much impossible.

Where to begin? Well, I guess we can make a start by talking about the issue, and thank you again to Sara Hawthorn for raising it in the first place, because I was certainly ashamed by my ignorance and lack of attention to the problem. We can ask recruiters to think about how to help us address the issue, we can be specific in our job ads, going beyond the usual “open to all” statements to be clear about how someone with a disability might be suitable for the role(s). If I were in agency now I’d be talking to my HR team about how we could create an open access entry scheme for people with disabilities – but I’m not, so I hope someone else will take the hint. Above all else we need to make it as OK to talk about disability in the agency workplace as it is to talk about any other topic.  Let’s do it.

How much are you worth?

The thorny question of remuneration is in the news today, as the High Pay Centre analysis of annual reports found that the salaries of chief executives in the FTSE 100 had increased more than 10% last year compared to the previous year. It’d be interesting to know whether their respective company revenues and profits grew similarly, don’t you think?

Are you surprised though, to hear that of the five female chief executives within the FTSE 100, none were within the top ten best paid (and that’s data from 2014 and 2015). Funnily enough, according to The Times today, “ten companies…had no female executive directors and no women on the remuneration committees that draw up plans for pay and bonuses.”  So, not only is it tough for women to get to the top, if you do get there chances are you won’t be paid the same as your male counterparts.  And for most of us, how would you even know that you aren’t being rewarded in the same way, especially when it comes to discretionary elements of remuneration packages such as performance related bonuses?

The 2016 PRCA (Public Relations Consultants Association) looked at (amongst other things) the influence of gender on salary and remuneration in a survey of 1,874 people carried out by YouGov.  Across the board, women earned an average of £9,000 less than men – and where people were given a bonus, the average given to women was approximately £4,000, compared to an average of £6,000 for men.  Some of the differences can be explained by the fact that there are more men than women working at a senior level within PR agencies. As PR Week reported, in agencies women outnumbered men by three to one among the junior ranks, but two-thirds of board directors or partners were men.

A quick look at the WPP 2015 Annual Report reinforces the seniority issue. Women made up 29% of the board and 33% of staff working at director or executive leadership level, set against an overall 54% of employees. Similar numbers abound at other media holding companies. So, women are entering the industry in ever-increasing numbers but not making it to the higher levels of leadership in the same numbers as men.

There’s a belief amongst some Millennials that the gender gap is a generation gap, and that as Millennials increasingly climb the corporate ladder, the number of women in leadership roles will automatically even out, but that’s not going to happen without sustained support.  Most of the big agencies and holding companies have been putting in place programmes designed to engage with women, provide role models and networking opportunities (Publicis has VivaWomen, Omnicom has Omniwomen – you get the picture) so change is definitely coming, but there’s a lot more to be done.

As with so many things, knowledge is power, so if you don’t know whether you’re being rewarded appropriately for what you do, make it your business to find out.  Check in with trusted peers, speak to your HR department if you have one and if all else fails, have a chat with a friendly recruiter to benchmark what you’re worth.  There’s nothing wrong with negotiating, or for deciding to settle a little under market value if other aspects of the job you do outweigh the purely financial, but if you don’t know where you sit vs the rest of the world, you’re not in the best position to make the right decision for you.  Good luck – and remember, you’re worth it.

Anything is possible

Today’s twitter feed has been notable for two stories in particular. Firstly, a letter in the Financial Times from members of the Investor Group of the 30% Club expressing disappointment that progress towards the target of one-third of FTSE 350 board positions by 2020 has slowed, according to the Female FTSE Board Report 2016.

This, from the foreword to the report, sums it up: “If we are to see sustained gender diversity at the top of business we must do more to ensure women progress through the executive pipeline. The reality is that progress in women’s representation remains too slow. Analysis in this report also gives us an insight into women’s representation at Executive Committee level in the FTSE 100, showing that they hold only 19.4% of Executive Committee roles.  In 2016 it is unacceptable that women continue to be an exception when it comes to the most senior leadership positions in business.”

The second story, all over the mainstream media as well as online, is that of Kevin Roberts, currently taking a leave of absence from his role as chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, who claimed in an interview that the debate about gender diversity is over, and that he doesn’t think the lack of women in leadership roles is a problem, commenting, “their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy.” Senior leaders at Publicis Groupe, owners of Saatchi and many of the world’s best known communications companies, have roundly condemned his comments and rightly so, as have many other leaders within the communications industry.

In this sector as in so many others, speaking out in support of women’s career development and finding ways to help people flex around their personal lives is driving real change, but it takes time.  One of the most positive things to come from Kevin Roberts’ comments was the way in which so many leaders responded, re-emphasising the importance of women in the workforce, and it was refreshing to see Publicis’ walking the talk by taking such swift action.

There is still a long way to go, and the Female FTSE Board Report suggests that instead of having an individual focus on women, organisations take a more holistic approach to ensuring that women are able to bring their full potential to work – which means looking differently at the way businesses are designed, the processes and behaviours that can ensure people from diverse backgrounds are best set for success.

In a month when the UK Conservative party appointed its second female prime minister and the US Democratic Party selected its first female presidential nominee, appearances can be deceiving. It’s all very well standing up and saying that their appointments show our daughters that anything is possible, but the fact remains that for many women, achieving their ambition feels a long way out of reach.  As a leader and a manager, ask yourself what you can do to help the women you work with achieve their potential.