Dear PPMA members and friends

Our blog post this week is the first in our ‘Let’s Talk’ series and today we’re focusing on Leadership and why the recent Fawcett reports findings are so troubling and what HR & OD needs to do in response.

It’s been another interesting summer for a range of reasons, not least the publication of a number of reports on the experience of women across the UK. The Fawcett report published ‘Sounds Familiar’ in April, which focused on the experience of younger women. Whilst Fawcett, in conjunction with other organisations, published their interim findings on ‘Does Local Government Work for Women?’. I’ve waited until the first week or so of responses are out of the way so we keep it fresh in the news, before I responded.

Bluntly put society and local government is not working for women in the same way as it is for our male colleagues, fathers, husbands, partners, uncles, etc. You’ll know from my inaugural speech to conference this year, that the suffragette movement inspired me as an 11 year old schoolgirl and continues to inspire me deeply. It has never occurred to me why women should have had such a struggle to obtain the vote and I continue to struggle with the idea that women do not have an equal experience to men in the workplace and society at large. As I put it so eloquently in the MJ recently, it’s 2017!!

Some of the report’s findings are deeply troubling:

  •  33 percent of elected local councillors in England are women, an increase of just five percentage points since 1997.
  • The percentage of women Members of Parliament has risen by more than 10 percentage points, from 18 to 29 percent, over the same period.
  • 80% of councillors elected in any one year are incumbents. That leaves little room for change. Men were 1.6 times more likely to be long-term incumbent in the 2016 elections than women were.
  • There are just 56 women council leaders in England – 17 percent of the total and just a three percentage point increase over the last ten years. There are only two women council leaders in Wales out of a total of 22 councils
  • 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 have faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year
  •  One third of women have experienced sexual assault on campus
  •  63% of women aged 18–24 have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work compared to an average of 52% amongst women of all ages.

And I could do on. Now, issues of equality don’t just affect women – we have to be honest about that. There are far more women working in HR and OD than men, but we all know that our male colleagues are as effective as their female colleagues. But the disparity in experience that women have is stark and we cannot avoid it. The constant stream of headlines and research mean that as your President, I must speak out about this issue.

Over the years I have heard from male colleagues about some of their less positive experiences of the workplace. But, there is no doubt that I have heard more negative stories from women at work. These range from women being excluded from decision making opportunities, to being demeaned at work, having less promotional opportunities and in some instances, women have reported being harassed and bullied. Obviously, as HR & OD professionals, we work incredibly hard on the ground to implement a range of interventions to try and address some of the issues involved.

Research, gender pay reporting, unconscious bias training, equalities legislation all keep us busy. Really understanding why the issues arise is key to us being able to successfully close the gaps in experience. Most recent Scandinavian research shows that Women are better suited to leadership than men. This is a positive finding, and reinforced similar reports, but other findings around gender pay gap reporting are showing really disappointing results. For example, 1 in 10 employers recently reported paying women less than men. Equalities legislation is identifying some terrible practice, but we can assume that costs and potential negative publicity when bringing employment tribunals mean that many more cases aren’t progressed.

From my perspective there are a number of ways of looking at this:

  • Either legislation isn’t good enough and needs to change – although in many instances government legislations can cause blowback and we spend too much time dealing with that
  •  Our training/development interventions aren’t hitting the spot
  • We need to do a lot more to educate our young people to address these worrying findings so that they don’t persist into adulthood
  • Job design and flexible working practices may be inadvertently preventing women from building careers that fulfil their capabilities
  • The stereotypical approach to women being the main carers and being expected to take time out of full time work is resulting in a misunderstanding of women’s ambitions.

We can’t change these things overnight but I think there are some really fundamental issues to think about. I’ve been struck by the launch of the Guardian Women in Public Service project which we talked to you about last week. Jo Miller, SOLACE President and Chief Executive of Doncaster Council makes a pretty logical point. Women make up half the population and I’m sure that, as a woman, I feel as strongly about issues as any man I know – I’d go as far to say that I’m sure I feel more strongly about some issues too!! Jo said ‘if you don’t like something, change it’. We have the power, we need to act on it. The recent issues about high heels in the workplace says it all!

So, we should think about this through the lens of making sure that we focus on gender balance because we know that we will deliver more representative services. I’m going to be taking a very proactive role in the SOLACE Women in Leadership group and in The Guardian project as you would expect.

I’ll be updating your more about the scope of that work in the next few weeks. But in closing this update, I want to ask all of you to work tirelessly within your organisations to work with everyone in making sure we develop policies, opportunities and jobs that reflect those we serve. Wouldn’t it be lovely to say in five years’ time ‘do you remember when women were paid less than men for being a woman’ and no-one can!