There's still room at the top

Looking for part-time, flexible work is not as easy as it should be in this day and age, unless you want a telesales job or to act as a rich Hampstead lady’s personal assistant (not that there is anything particularly wrong with either). I know we are in a recession and all that, but you’d think people would want to have top talent for less than their annual entertainment budget.

The problem, it seems, is that presenteeism is still alive and kicking and calling the shots in a company near you.  It is unbelievable, in fact it’s bonkers, that many employers are still wedded to the idea that to be worth your salt you have to be in the office between nine and five, preferably eight and six, although if you really want to get on, from seven til seven. 

In our 24-hour society it surely makes more sense to enable, even encourage, flexible working.  If law firms, for example, are to provide more convenient services for consumers they will have to open on Saturdays and have lawyers on hand at all hours to respond to clients.  These demands can only be met by more imaginative working patterns.

Yet that message is still having trouble getting through.  The president of the Law Society, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, last week launched a pretty vocal attack on law firms that merely paid lip service to the benefits of flexible working and ‘unwittingly…may be losing talented women and promoting mediocre men’ risking boardrooms full of men ‘only some of whose talent warrants their senior positions’. 

Responding to the depressing results of a survey that found gender diversity at the top of law firms had not changed much over the last ten years she added that if career progression was based on pure merit ‘some male business leaders and law firm senior partners would never even have seen the paintings on the boardroom wall’.  Alas she named no names.

To be fair to the government, and you don’t often hear me say that, it is trying to promote the benefits of flexible working, I am just not sure it is going about it in the right way.  In what I imagine is an attempt to destigmatise different working patterns, from next year the right to request flexible working will be extended beyond parents and carers to include all employees with at least six months’ service. 

This is a great idea when applied to other relatives or even close friends who want to help with caring responsibilities or those volunteering in their community.  But allowing those who can’t face the rush hour the same rights is, to be honest, quite insulting.  And we already have a system for allowing people to indulge in unusual hobbies on weekdays, it’s called annual leave.

This is not how you destigmatise parents having to leave early for the school run or carers needing a morning off for a hospital appointment, it merely trivialises them by making them of equal importance to someone wanting to lie in bed a bit longer.  Ministers are in cloud-cuckoo land if they think this will ‘resolve office tensions between working parents and childless employees’.

Obviously employers retain the right to refuse such requests, providing they have a business case.  You can be fairly certain many will.  On the other hand, even without ham-fisted government gestures, some organisations are starting to recognise the benefits of more flexible working, even in the rarefied world of the law.  It’s about time:  at the starting point in their careers 70 per cent of lawyers are women, but at partner level only 12 per cent are.

It can be done, you can be a successful working mother providing there is a bit of creative thinking on both sides.  Obelisk Legal Support, a legal outsourcing company, has around 100 lawyers and 260 legal translators who would otherwise have disappeared from the market.  They choose how many hours they want to work and the client gets a top lawyer of city calibre for their money.

Naturally, it is not just law firms needing to think differently.  There are still eight all-male FTSE 100 company boards, a significant improvement on 2010 when there were 21, but that’s eight big powerful organisations without a single woman on their board.  Of those 100, not one appointed a woman to an executive role in 2012.

It is also not particularly shocking to learn the percentage of women attending the World Economic Forum starting today at Davos remains at about 17 per cent.  Actually I’m quite impressed it’s as high as that: I have no idea why any self-respecting woman would want to go and hang out for five days in what is, in effect, the most exclusive gentlemen’s club on the planet. 

And there’s the rub: it’s not just about the mechanics of the working day.  Nor is it that men still deliberately discriminate against women, which is illegal anyway.  The Law Society’s survey found one of the top reasons for the lack of a more equal gender distribution at senior levels was the unconscious bias that means the profession selects in its own image.

White, middle-aged men will promote white middle-aged men because that’s what makes them feel comfortable.  They will probably have spent time together at evening networking events, on golf days, in the box at Old Trafford, at boozy client conferences.  It’s not just that many women don’t have the time to do these things once they’ve had children, quite a few of us don’t want to hang out in the men’s club. 

Unfortunately for us talented, hardworking, professional women who also happen to be mothers, the opportunities are still few and far between.  In some quarters, the backlash has already started: it is not so much a wonder that self-described academic and Anders Breivik-sympathiser Steve Moxon thinks women are ‘biologically unfit to rise to the top in business’, but it is baffling how he ended up in front of a parliamentary select committee.

No, if the government is serious about gender equality at work and wants to promote the benefits of flexible working for individuals and businesses it should start by getting its own house in order and promoting a few more women, mothers even, to its ministerial ranks.  ‘Do as I do’ is a far more powerful incentive than ‘do as I say’.

Posted in: Employment law

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