A better balance for women and men at work requires a bigger reset

Gender balance is a struggle because the scales are still set to reinforce old ways.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter. The organisers rightly state that a gender-balanced world is not a women’s issue, but a business one. 

Sadly, in the world of work, as in many other spheres of life, we still have a lot of work to do.

A recent report revealed that at the current rate of progress, the gender pay gap won’t be closed until 2055.

As a female managing director, I have to wonder why it is taking so long.

Perhaps it is because we have set the scales to an ideal that is too reductive.

After all, calling for the same number of men and women in senior roles is a positive call to action, but does it really address the inherent biases that are preventing meaningful progress? 

If we continue to seek balance without changing the metrics, it’s unlikely change will come easily.

Rigid expectations

Anecdotally, I know we have no shortage of phenomenal women to pick from. In my friendship group alone, there are lawyers, teachers, doctors and City traders proving that gender is not the hindrance it was, even a generation ago. 

Sadly, this is not always reflected in the hiring process – still built around rigid expectations of what it means to be a leader. 

For some time now, the solution to gender gaps at a senior level has been asking for compromise – usually from women.

By asking women to be more confident, lean in, do more, we have been trying to 'fix' them, when it’s really the system that needs to be more malleable. 

Instead of trying to create a solution for the problem at the coal-face, we should be trying to fix it at the source.

If we keep hiring in the same ways, we will continue to see the same type of people doing the same job.

Instead, change should happen from the moment a job spec is being written.

Too often they are written with a male voice, with an archaic image of what a leader looks like – which often results in the CV pile being dominated by men.

This is a business oversight. 

Instead of recruiting for a leader who has proven they’re capable of doing an existing job, we should be recruiting for the potential to solve tomorrow’s problems. 

This also means keeping the doors open for unexpected candidates, such as those returning to work. 

At Mindshare, we’re currently exploring the option of having a guaranteed interview for return to workers, to give candidates the opportunity to get back in the room when their CV alone might not get them there.

This isn’t just an issue for women, either. Balance for Better requires a new perspective for everyone in the workplace, no matter their gender. 

Issues around maternity leave, raised in discussions about why women become trapped beneath a glass ceiling, are usually mirrored in those about paternity leave.

Changing perceptions

Perceptions about what is acceptable if you want to succeed too often hinder professional growth. 

Just as a mother can be perceived to be falling behind if she prioritises family over career at certain points in her life, so too can a father be perceived to be less dedicated if he leaves early for the school run. 

Combating this requires asking everyone – employees and employers alike – to think differently about how they work, and what success looks like to them. 

Switching up our expectations about what it means to be a leader should unlock new avenues of growth for everyone – parent or not. 

Taking the first step, however, requires a certain amount of courage, and necessitates stepping into the unknown. 

It sounds obvious, but managers should make sure that they foster an open dialogue with employees, so they feel comfortable asking for a work-life balance that doesn’t fit the norm. 

On my journey up the ladder, I was fortunate enough to carve out time in my working week to train as a nutritionist on the side. 

In letting me grow my own burgeoning side-hustle, Mindshare gave me the opportunity to hone leadership skills (albeit in a different forum) that would eventually come in handy in my role as managing director. 

By creating space for new ways of learning, employers may find that they create a wider talent pool in the process. 

At a time when the pace of innovation and social trends moves at the speed of light, hiring on the potential of transferable skills, instead of proven cookie-cutter experience, could also give agencies a competitive edge. 

Allowing your employees more time to learn, and be consumers themselves, means greater insight into the audiences being targeted for clients.

We have a very different generation of leaders coming through the ranks, who are bright, brilliant and want their careers to look different from those who have gone before them. 

For existing agencies to benefit, we must be sure we’re working towards the "Balance" of the future, not merely levelling up to old expectations.

Jo Lyall is managing director of Mindshare UK

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