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Workplace Developments that Clear the Way for Everyone

I’m currently reading What Happened by Hilary Clinton; an autopsy of her own failed campaign to become the first female president of the USA. On the day she was confirmed as the first female presidential nominee for a major political party in the US, she said “I am so happy this day has come … happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. Happy for boys and men too – because when any barrier falls in America, for anyone, it clears the way for everyone. When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”

This is a great perspective on equality, suggesting that whilst we might focus on bringing under-represented groups to the fore with direct and intentional efforts, we can actually create an environment and a set of opportunities that enable everyone to have better, different or new opportunities.

It got me thinking about the barriers that have fallen in gender equality over the last 100 years, and what the overall improvements have been for the world of work. Here are a few examples that spring to my mind:

Parental leave

Parental leave started in the UK with the introduction of maternity rights for expectant mothers under the Employment Protection Act in 1975. Over time, those rights have been enhanced, both through acts of parliament and company policy.

When introduced, maternity pay was payable for a maximum of six weeks and only about half of working women were eligible for it because of long qualifying periods. In 1993, coverage was extended to all working women, and today we see legally-stated maternity rights that provide payment for up to 39 weeks. But we also see many progressive companies offering extended leave arrangements, enhanced payments and keep in touch programmes.

The propagation of mothers’ rights has also led us to expect, implement and advocate parental rights for all parents, same-sex couples and adopters. In 2003, male employees received paid statutory paternity leave for the first time, an entitlement that was extended in January 2010. Adoption leave was also introduced in 2003 allowing parents of adopted children or those seeking to have a child through surrogacy to adoption leave and pay.

Shared parental leave was introduced in 2015, allowing both parents to share the entitlement to maternity leave and pay in their child’s first year. These rights apply to parents in work including those adopting, same-sex couples, cohabiting couples and couples raising a child together which may be from a prior relationship.

Flexible working

It could be argued that the emergence of flexible working was borne out of the return of mothers to the workplace. A requirement for work-life balance created the need for more part-time jobs and hours, for job share and for flexibility in working patterns. Over time, flexi-time became seen as a general benefit to both men and women alike; parents and non-parents.

Flexible working allows for variation in the working day within specific core hours, providing the freedom to vary hours to meet work or life demands, and the opportunity to accrue additional days of leave in lieu of additional hours worked. Forward-thinking organizations continue to champion and develop approaches to flexible working opportunities.

There are still challenges – some organizations are traditionally reactively accepting requests for flexibility from working mums. Some organizations are still reticent to trust their employees to do proper work if they can’t be seen (i.e. no physical presence in the workplace). Research in 2017 found that 47% of employees do not have flexible working encouraged in their workplace, whilst two thirds would like to have it as an option.

In some of the more progressive organizations however, we see the removal of standard working hours replaced by the opportunity to work when and where is best for the business and the individual. Workers who are offered the option of flexible working are benefiting UK business by taking less leave and working more productively (according to a report in the Independent in 2018).

In some roles, of course, it is not possible to work remotely (especially in the service or retail industry for example), but for many, the focus switches from presence to outputs, and our interactions become remote, virtual and driven by technology. It means we can reduce our commute times, work more efficiently and focus on wellbeing as well as work. It means we can balance our carer responsibilities with our career ambitions.

For employers, it’s part of a bigger value proposition – attracting candidates who welcome such flexibility (70% of workers feel that offering flexible working makes a job more attractive to them). Organizations can invest less in fixed desk allocation, and more on remote working technology and collaborative but agile workspaces. They can focus on deliverables, outputs and achievements, rather than process and presence. Environmentally, it requires us to travel less, reducing our footprint in the world. But it does require a mindset shift – leaders have to change they way they allocate work, set goals and monitor and measure success. Research suggests that 56% of people believe managers need to adapt their skills to manage a remote workforce.

Done well, it means that regardless of gender, marital or parental status the freedom to choose when we work, where we do it, and to some degree how we do it, is ours to blend. It’s clearing the way for everyone to have the freedom to choose when we work, where we work and potentially how we work – we are all able to create a blend that works well for us as individuals.

Glass ceilings

The encouragement to women to break through ‘glass ceilings’ at work has long been discussed, and in many cases, progress is being made. To facilitate this, companies may deliver programmes focusing on women’s development needs, mentoring and coaching programmes, proactive strategies that encourage women into business/industry, and ensuring equality of opportunity throughout an organisation’s structure.

This latter point can often mean a requirement to make career paths, development programmes, talent and potential identification and succession planning more transparent, and make decisions based on evidence, concrete experience and with the absence of bias. This transparency of what it takes to progress, the opportunities to develop and how decisions are made can benefit both men and women at work.

With great transparency comes greater opportunity for all.

Bottom line

There is a growing base of evidence that appointing women into leadership positions is simply good business. In 2018, McKinsey’s report on diversity suggests that businesses in the top quartile for gender diversity in their executive teams are 21% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies are in the bottom quartile.

Women are typically seen to have strengths in areas such as collaboration and creating trust, and that using diverse groups (including gender but in addition to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc.) for problem-solving can provide encourage broader discussion and create better solutions. 

It is important to remember that greater diversity on the Board, and in other senior leadership positions can result in better business success, proven through the bottom line, growth and innovation. And these results are great for all of us.


As Hillary said, ‘when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit’.