Caroline Noublanche, CEO at virtual fertility clinic Apricity, explains why empowering women in the workplace is vital, with four fundamental steps employers should take to achieve it.
Over the last 25 years, there have been encouraging improvements towards equality for men and women in the workplace. However, there is still considerable scope for progress, and the private sector needs to play its part in driving women’s continued empowerment and progression.
Globally only 27.1% of managers and leaders are women, and women accounted for less than 4% of board chairs across nearly 7,000 companies in 44 countries in 2017. This is even though female-led companies often outperform their male-led counterparts, with the Government-led Rose Review revealing that an extra £250bn could be injected into the UK economy through the advancement of female entrepreneurs and leaders.
There are several well-established reasons for this discrepancy, ranging from a lack of confidence in younger women through to the difficulties of balancing motherhood and career progression. While there is no quick panacea for these challenges, employers have many opportunities to make a real difference within their businesses. It’s only by taking the first actionable steps towards equality that we can begin to change the bigger picture – so, where should businesses start?
1. Establish transparency and trust
Transparency and trust should be at the heart of any business, and a strong female empowerment strategy needs to be built on this foundation. Female employees should be aware that their company values them, wants to nurture them, and is committed to furthering their professional development, and leaders should hold regular meetings to discuss the steps they are taking to ensure this. It’s also important that these sessions are company-wide to promote inclusion and to ensure that there is accountability across all levels.
This also includes being transparent and realistic about what can be achieved, whether that’s the proportion of diverse new hires, budgets for L&D, or opportunities for promotion.
2. Planning for motherhood
For many women, the difficulties of balancing career progression and beginning a family represent one of the biggest challenges they will face in the workplace. A recent study by PWC found that nearly 42% of women in the workplace feared the impact that having a child would have on their careers. This figure rose exponentially for the 1 in 7 UK couples who will experience infertility issues. The stigma, emotional trauma, costs, and time involved in undergoing fertility treatments without support from management can lead women to go as far as to quit their jobs to start a family, leading to the loss of many talented women from the workplace.
If businesses are to empower and promote women, they must address this issue head-on. Along with shared parental leave and fair maternity policies, companies can also provide fertility treatments as part of a benefits package. These options help lessen the financial and emotional burdens on women undergoing fertility treatments and demonstrate a firm commitment to employees to support and work with them throughout their journey to motherhood. Not only do benefits offer a lifeline to women, but they are also highly desirable to job searching candidates, with 60% of women saying they would opt for a role with these benefits than one without.
3. Flexible hours are a must
It’s impossible to talk about equality in the workplace without discussing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The shift to remote working has been challenging for everyone, but working mothers and women with caregiving responsibilities have faced huge additional burdens over the last year. According to McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report, women were 1.5x more likely than men to downsize or quit their job due to the pressures of juggling homeschooling and caring with work, with 75% of respondents citing burnout as the reasoning behind this.
Offering flexible hours is therefore critical if businesses are to ensure the retention and wellbeing of female staff. A flexible offering could include later start times and breaks for childcare, compressed hours, or the option to move schedules to accommodate childcare and homeschooling.
Companies also need to consider mothers-to-be in this bracket, including those undergoing fertility treatments. Many women feel immense pressure to keep up appearances during this time, even though most will need an average of nine clinic visits with traditional IVF. This can lead to anxiety around taking too much time off work, along with feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Whilst employers are required by law to grant time for treatments, going the extra step to build in a level of flexibility here can go a long way towards supporting staff and acknowledging their challenges, whilst allowing them to continue excelling in their role. This flexibility can also be achieved by providing fertility benefits with flexible options, including partnering with virtual fertility clinics which reduce the number of clinic visits and work around women’s schedules.
4. Coaching and training
Learning and Development programmes are integral to creating an equal and diverse workforce. Many of the common barriers to women’s progression, including a lack of confidence, fear of failure, and perfectionism, stem from missed opportunities to build on women’s natural abilities. Women are often excellent communicators, problem solvers, and leaders, and these skills are highly valuable from a business perspective. Specialised training and development programmes can give female employees the chance to develop these talents in a safe and supportive space and can be highly beneficial in helping women access senior leadership positions.
These sessions can be held by an external provider, or companies can make the most of their internal talent. Pairing female employees with a senior female mentor or role model from within the business can be a powerful way to increase visibility and representation, along with teaching staff the skills and attributes that lead to success.
Senior leadership teams need to take an honest look at how their current offering meets the needs and career progression of female staff, taking into account culture, benefits, and working practices. Only when these changes are implemented will both the economy and wider society reap the benefits and talents of women in the workplace.
Caroline Noublanche is CEO and Co-founder of Apricity, a virtual fertility clinic. It aims, first, at disrupting the fertility treatment experience and then at improving chances for women and couples who have difficulties conceiving using Artificial Intelligence.