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It’s now more than a century since women first won the right to vote. From equal pay to equal employment rights, legislation over the last 100 years has helped to create a reasonably level playing field for women in the workplace.

But in many cases, equality stops at the boardroom door. Senior management in most organisations remains an almost exclusively male preserve. In FTSE 100 companies, for example, only one in seven board members are women.

Tipping the scales

The balance has shifted slightly in recent years, but not much: according to the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, it will take more than 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms.

The reasons behind the boardroom imbalance are complex and deep rooted. “There have been huge social changes over the last 50 years, but the workplace itself has not really kept pace. It needs to recalibrate many of its processes and practices. They may have been relevant 50 years ago when most men went to work, most women stayed at home, men were the main buyers and technology was fixed to buildings. None of this is the case anymore, so the old models and metrics need to be totally reviewed rather than just tweaked,” says Collette Dunkley, founder and CEO of XandY Communications and an expert in gender issues.

Having served as an executive board director and held senior roles at companies such as General Motors, Cable & Wireless, Viridian and Vodafone, Collette is better placed than most to comment on gender issues in the corporate world. With five children, she’s no stranger to the challenges of work/life integration.

Tension between the demands of work and home remains an insoluble problem for many. During the childbearing and child-rearing years, many women are confronted by an all-or-nothing choice between family and career – simply because businesses are often unable or unwilling to accommodate flexible working.

All too often, it’s back to square one for women returning to the workplace after a career break. “When they do come back, they’re almost starting again,” observes Collette. “The problem is that many companies make decisions about individuals’ career paths when employees are in their early 30s, which puts women at a disadvantage. By the time you’re 45 and ready to commit yourself 100%, it’s often too late as you’ve been passed over. What’s needed are career structures that allow a break. But that’s not happening.”

Selection bias is another problem, and it’s one that affects women at every stage of their careers – particularly when leadership talent is acquired via external head hunters. “There is an assumption that to get to the top, you have to have a certain work style,” says Collette.

“When I got to board level, I said to my boss: tell me what you want me to achieve, but don’t tell me how to achieve it, because I don’t work like you. For example, I like to spend as much time as possible outside the office, getting more input from more people. Staying at a desk all day and consulting the same people in the company all the time is insular and can’t lend itself to great competitive solutions. It just gives me the same old thinking all the time.”

Rebalancing the enterprise

Smart businesses capitalise on female talent – and recognise that getting the balance right at board level pays dividends. Research reveals that return on equity is significantly higher in Fortune 500 companies that have a good executive gender mix.

Intelligent management of human resources also allows businesses to make long-term savings. “Recruitment costs a fortune for big corporations. Retaining talent means you are going to save yourself a lot of money and protect the investment you have already made in your people,” notes Collette.

What’s becoming increasingly clear is that there’s a real need to re-evaluate just what ‘going to work’ should mean in the 21st century. This means recognising that all too often, the ‘modern’ office environment reflects the technology and habits of a bygone era.

The reality is that many businesses remain stuck in the past, with employees welded to their desks eight hours a day, much as they were 50 years ago.

Reorientation of the enterprise, from desk focused to task focused, is one way ahead. Increased flexibility could help women – and men – to maintain contact with the work environment and remain productive, wherever they happen to be and whatever their career aspirations are. Mobile technology already provides the tools needed to make this happen.

“Flexible working is one of the crucial pieces of the solution,” says Collette. “In days gone by, you had to go to the office to be in communication with your people, customers, suppliers and teams – there was no other choice. But there is a choice now. I can work from home or anywhere else when I need to, I have a computer in front of me and I have the mobile internet. We have to look very carefully at the way things are currently structured and ask: if you were starting from scratch today, would you build it this way? The answer is, you wouldn’t.”

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