It is a truth universally acknowledged (by those within the HR function at any rate) that wise and thoughtful investment in people is at the root of progress in any business. Getting the obvious across to the profit-hungry number-crunchers at the top of the organisation can be a different story, and getting them to understand that men and women are not machines, but individuals whose personal needs and domestic situations are worth taking into consideration is a task most shrink from simply on the basis that they would be fighting a losing battle.  Tough on families and tough on the causes of families, would be an apt strapline for a majority of business leaders both male and female – many with children – who have pulled the trapdoor neatly up behind them.

A business’ primary objective is likely to be financial, which means attracting and retaining top clients.  Although marketing, PR and entertainment have their role to play, ultimately the standard of service clients receive from your staff is a key factor in their decision to bring you more business.  In a legal context – the better the lawyer, the better the firm, the better the client.  So earning more money means keeping the best staff, and keeping them motivated.  But at what cost?

Traditionally, firms have drawn the simple conclusion that an extortionate salary and free beer on a Friday is enough of an incentive to keep bums on seats.  But a brimming bank account and a weekly overdose of camaraderie are no longer enough to keep the emotionally intelligent workforce in place.  Highly educated women are leaving employment in droves after having children, draining the workplace of their talent, and consequently lowering the overall standard of provision of services.  Women achieving high status in the legal profession are an endangered species.

Why?  Women have a completely different experience of employment from men.  Leading employment partner Jane Mann at Fox Williams explains:  “Women face a number of hurdles throughout their working life – if they manage to get through their twenties and thirties without being sexually harrassed, many of them then go on maternity leave, possibly have to fight for part time or flexible work options and on their return (if they do return) have to cope with being viewed differently, and face barriers to progress and promotion.  Statistics show that if a woman stumbles at any of these hurdles, she is unlikely to stay the course.”  The number of sex discrimination claims brought before the Employment Tribunal last year rose to 11,726, with awards going up to £180,000 excluding the additional cost in damaging PR and recruitment agency fees.  Six women (one based in London) recently sued German bank DKW for $1.4bn – and if successful could pave the way for similar claims in the UK.  Women’s particular needs and talents are being ignored, at great cost to employers not only in terms of legal settlements, but in recruiting and training their replacements and operating with a lower standard of talent across the board.  If more women came back to work after having children and were listened to and accommodated, there would be more women in positions of power, and this would go a long way to change the perception of women at work, and undermine the laddish lap-dancing culture that the DKW women fell victim to.  So how to redress the balance?

Philippa Hird, ITV’s Director of Human Resources, wants to introduce Women Returners courses – a half day course to be run four times a year, to be taken by women before they leave and after they return from maternity leave, to provide a safe forum for discussion of the issues such as how they are likely to feel after having the baby, whether they will want to come back to work, flexible and part time working opportunities and what their hopes and expectations are for the future.   Discussing the impact of children on working life and offering information about childcare options goes a long way to showing that the employer understands and appreciates the employee’s domestic situation, at the same time as showing interest in the employee returning to work.  Employers who join the Childcare Voucher Scheme will entitle their employees to save tax and NI on the first £55 of their registered nanny’s salary.

Last week’s report from Labour think tank Demos “The Other Glass Ceiling”  suggests that the whole family dynamic plays a big part in an employee’s performance at work and calls for employers to “recast the workplace as part of the extended family…”  If that seems like a tall order, try these simpler bite size steps to build better relationships with your female employees:

Ten steps to take this month

  • Present the economic case for retaining female talent to the decision-makers.
  • Survey female staff to see where they feel they need more support in the context of gender-specific issues at work.
  • Survey your clients to see if there is any underlying objection to part-time or flexible working (you may be surprised at how accommodating they are).
  • Look into the provision of returner courses or interviews, to ensure that the first day of her maternity leave is not the last day of a woman’s employment.
  • Keep in touch with staff on maternity leave, keep them informed and up to date and listen to what they have to say.
  • Join the Childcare Voucher Scheme and publicise the scheme to parents.
  • Offer employees up to date information on childcare options.
  • Establish relationships with childcare providers and agencies.
  • Make clear in your mission statement that you are committed to work-life balance and understanding your employees’ family commitments.
  • Assign to an appropriate member of the HR team particular responsibility for women’s welfare, and publicise the appointment.
  • Publicise any policy developments that result – especially to recruitment agencies, to maximise your recruitment benefit as early as possible.

If women’s interests had been a focus and a priority in the 90s when I was a city solicitor, who knows, perhaps I’d still be there…

For an information pack on childcare services for employees please e-mail .  Lucy Martin is a partner at Gina’s Nannies childcare agency in London and is co-author of Make It Your Business, the business handbook for women to be published by How To Books in September 2006  

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