Gender equality - time for change
Sat in one of my regular Wednesday meetings, the person chairing happens to be a woman; in fact, over half of those around the table are female. I have been fortunate to work alongside some truly remarkable men and women, where drive and talent is the common trait and gender an almost inconsequential detail.
Throughout my career this is the view I had become accustomed to; happily assuming that across organisations there is healthy balance contributing to a successful team dynamic. To a degree I believed that gender imbalance was a matter for previous generations or specific sectors. So much so, that when I was approached by Sharon Peters last year to join her as Co-Chair of the M&S Inspiring Women’s Network, my immediate reaction was "Do we have a problem?, quickly followed by "Is this really relevant to me?".
Despite my reservations I was intrigued. I read reports and articles on the subject, and spoke at length to Sharon and other members of the network and quite quickly I realised I was looking at it the wrong way.
Addressing diversity is not about solving a problem, it’s about taking advantage of a huge opportunity. As a leader in this business, it is my job to ensure we are maximising competitive advantage. In an increasingly globalised market, where people are living longer and technology means we have competition coming from nearly every corner of the world – maintaining advantage will require a workforce that reflects more cultures, ages, beliefs and backgrounds than ever before. At M&S we are committed to putting our customer at the heart of the business, so when 58% of our customers are women there is an obvious commercial benefit to having a female perspective across all levels of the organisation. McKinsey’s Women Matter report goes a step further setting out the broader economic benefits of tackling gender diversity, suggesting that narrowing the gender gap in the labour market could add as much as 11% to global 2025 GDP.
Joining the network has also brought me a fresh perspective. Given the male dominance in senior roles, most men have no idea what it feels like to be the minority. I was equally unaware of that feeling until time after time I was attending external women’s network events as the only man in the room. Suddenly, I was very aware of the difference, becoming more self-conscious and altering my usual behaviour and sense of identity. (It was a startling realisation and I’d encourage any man to try it out if in any doubt). Of course, the external audience simply take you at face value but I was left with a lingering feeling that I had more to give and wasn’t operating at my best. If business has unwittingly created this environment, it is no surprise that women remain underrepresented at the top.
Whilst statistics at M&S read positively compared to FTSE average there is still much more to do. Gender equality is not about fulfilling quotas or targets but about creating the right cultural conditions for all talented individuals to prosper and fulfil their commercial and personal potential. As a network, we want to challenge the perception of this being a female only issue. For example, at management level less than 5% of those on flexible working arrangements are male and despite the introduction of shared parental leave in April 2015, there are still relatively low levels of take up. It shows policies alone don’t equal progress; men need to be part of an inclusive, holistic debate to effect real change.
So today on International Women’s Day, we have relaunched as the Gender Equality Network, as a clear signal that this involves everyone. Over the last six months, I have come to learn as a senior leader and a man, that gender equality is not just relevant to me, it’s a commercial imperative.
If you would like to receive an email alert when we post our latest blogs, click here.