One of the most important business trends of the last few years has been the growing realisation among organisations from all sectors that more needs to be done to promote gender equality at the very highest levels of leadership and management.
Most modern companies realise that challenging gender discrepancies in the workplace isn't just a box-ticking exercise - it's a vital affirmation of a company's commitment to inclusivity, and can also provide them with access to a broader range of talent, as well as the unique insights and perspectives that talented female leaders can provide.
Yet despite this, the latest research from the Fawcett Society has shown that only 6% of FTSE 100 chief executives are women, with many of the UK's biggest organisations falling well short of the gender equality standards that might be expected of them. Clearly, more needs to be done to ensure women are not being denied access to top roles - and it's every manager's duty to make sure their organisation is doing everything it can.
The treatment of women in business has come under a harsh spotlight recently due to the introduction of a statutory requirement on 4th April 2018 for all companies, charities and public sector bodies with more than 250 employees to provide data on their average pay gap between men and women.
The results don't make for flattering reading. The current median aggregate gender pay gap for part-time and full-time workers remains at 18.4%, with almost half of the companies included on the 2017 Times Top 50 Employers for Women list having an even bigger gap than that. Overall, more than three-quarters of UK companies pay men more on average than women, while a total of 1,557 firms missed the reporting deadline altogether.
These findings should give business leaders food for thought, particularly given that a lack of access to promotion opportunities is known to be a key driver of the pay gap. Companies should be asking themselves why these discrepancies exist within their organisation, halt any discriminatory practices, and draw up an action plan to address any cultural or systemic issues that may be perpetuating the problem.
Those companies that already do have talented women in key leadership roles will have a head start on many of their competitors, but the work to achieve equality must not stop there, and these female leaders should be seen as a key asset in these efforts.
Female bosses can act as strong role models for other women who may have leadership aspirations of their own, and they should therefore be given the opportunity to provide mentorship wherever possible. Companies should look to consult with experienced female professionals on issues such as pay equality, and ask for their insights about potential glass ceilings or barriers to progress that may exist within the organisation. Providing a truly inclusive path into management for women will be much easier when female staff are allowed to lead the way.
Flexible working is a growing trend within the world of business, with more and more organisations offering remote working options and flexible hours to get the most out of a geographically diverse workforce.
This trend is also important because it's one of the best ways to make an organisation friendlier to female workers, who might otherwise be prevented from excelling and progressing due to overly rigid structures preventing them from balancing their personal and professional responsibilities. Given that flexible working has been shown to improve operational efficiency, enhance morale and bolster staff retention, investing in this area should be a no-brainer.
However, it's worth remembering that it's not enough to merely offer these options; businesses should openly embrace them, encouraging current or prospective female staff members to make use of their allowances, and ensuring that women are not being passed over for promotions as a result of these decisions.
Getting more women into leadership positions means rethinking attitudes and policies governing pay and working practices, but it may also be important to reconsider the criteria being used to select candidates in the first place.
Bosses need to be asking themselves whether their current internal and external recruitment and interviewing processes represent a system in which people of all genders can succeed, or if their technique is unfairly weighted to value conventionally male traits over female ones. Consideration should also be given to whether these openings are being properly advertised to women, with appropriate focus given to aspects of the job that female candidates may be more likely to find appealing.
Once again, consulting with existing female leaders can be an easy shortcut to ensuring that hiring policies are designed on a basic level to be as inclusive as possible.
In the era of the #MeToo movement, one thing should be abundantly clear to the leaders and managers of every business: that it isn't possible to address women's issues without listening to women's voices.
At a corporate level, this means fostering an environment in which female workers feel comfortable, supported and empowered to bring up any equality-related concerns they may have in the workplace, and to ensure that this feedback is taken seriously and acted upon where appropriate. It may not be easy for bosses to hear about instances of workplace discrimination, harassment, sexist microaggressions or inappropriate behaviour, but treating these problems as a priority is essential if they are to be solved.
Effecting the kind of cultural change that can bring about a truly level playing field for men and women in leadership is a difficult undertaking, and it may well be a lengthy process, but it's absolutely necessary for the fair, diverse and high-performing management model that modern organisations aspire to attain.