Office meeting

Women and Leadership in Public Service: a challenge for change

By: Paul Deemer, Head of Diversity and Inclusion, NHS Employers
Published: Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - 11:05 GMT Jump to Comments

What obstacles do women face in the public sector workforce, and how can these be overcome?

I was recently asked to discuss women in leadership on a panel which consisted of three women and myself, addressing an invited audience of which 90% were women. In advance of Women and Leadership in Public Service, an AnswerTime® event, I was asked to raise three points that I felt hindered women's progress in the workplace beyond the infamous glass ceiling.

It may or may not surprise you to know that my first offering of barriers to women's progress was men. This was not purely an act of self-survival to ensure that I got out the room in one piece - It was based on my experience and strong belief that men are not only part of the problem, but also part of the solution.

For too long, men have been reluctant to give up their power bases at work, and to "allow" women into the clubs, cliques, meetings and boardrooms which were previously male strongholds. The majority of men have been reluctant to support family-friendly practices which might empower women to have a more active role in the workplace. Worst of all, men have been allowed to select people in their own image for jobs, coaching, mentoring and special project work assignments.

In a moment of madness, my second offering of barriers to women's progress was women! This is for the same reasons as above. Not so much in terms of the power base argument, but more the "Well, I got here on my own merits - so why do you need help?" syndrome.

One of the biggest barriers to women's progress, in my view, has been those who have made it to the top and then pulled up the proverbial ladder behind them. This has presented itself as women not supporting gender equality initiatives at work, and not encouraging or sponsoring their female contemporaries.

My third offering was bias - both conscious and unconscious. I won't speak much about unconscious bias here - there are plenty of commentators reporting on this issue. My concern is more about conscious bias.

The Chair of our panel at this event mentioned the anniversary of the suffragette movement in her opening address - and asked whether Emily Pankhurst would be proud of what had been achieved in the intervening century. When I read the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on maternity and pregnancy discrimination in the UK, I am not sure that she would. Although men have started to open some doors to women, attitudes and workplace practices remain persistently entrenched.

My final challenge to the audience was to question prejudice, discrimination and bias when it is witnessed or experienced. Call it out when you witness it, and challenge it when you face it yourself. This call was to both women and men. As I have explained, men are both part of the problem and part of the solution. We are told that the world is now changing at a faster pace than ever before. Let's not wait another hundred years; let's do this now. Change starts with you.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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