Women in Business Around the World

Women in Business Around the World

The UK trails behind many countries in employment equality. What can small businesses learn from other nations?

How could taking the leading countries for employment equality into account lead to better business for UK SMEs? We start in Iceland, which – along with the other Nordic countries – scores consistently highly when it comes to equal pay, low female unemployment and having women in senior positions.

1. Iceland: increase female labour force participation

In Iceland, 85% of the potential female labour force is employed. By comparison, in the UK the figure is just 73%. Iceland has long led the way in female equality at work, with legislation including the requirement for boards to consist of at least 40% of each gender. “Because the population is small in Iceland, it’s not unusual to have significant numbers of women in positions of power,” says Eluned Parrott, director of Parrott Communications and former shadow minister for the Economy, Science and Transport in Wales. “Women routinely go back to work after having children because the economy can’t run without them. This means equal representation of women has become normalised,” Parrott says.

Key learning for SMEs: By bringing the qualities of both genders together you get a more dynamic and effective business, which is of benefit to men and women. If larger companies are not taking note of this, it could be a key differentiator for smaller firms.

2. Sweden: encourage shared parental leave (SPL)

On the statute books in the UK since 2015, SPL is not ingrained in the culture to the extent that it is further north. “You see men and women sharing parental roles much more in Nordic countries,” says Parrott. “It’s still seen as unusual or even outlandish in this country to have a stay-at-home dad while the mother is working – but if that mother is a business owner or senior manager, why is it seen as strange?” Large corporates do not seem keen to embrace SPL – can smaller companies show flexibility and offer it as competitive advantage, by retaining talent that might otherwise leave?

Key learning for SMEs: It’s a myth that it’s harder for SMEs to commit to initiatives like SPL. “Actually, a huge number of start-ups are launched by mothers when they’ve had a child and they realise going back to nine-to-five won’t work for them,” Parrott points out.

3. Norway: reduce female unemployment

Norway has just 4% female unemployment, only beaten globally by Japan. In countries such as Spain and Greece, the figures can be as high as 24% and 29% respectively. The stats on improving this unequivocally show that having more women in work is good for business and good for national economies. “You need to have people inside the company who reflect the people you’re trying to serve,” says Ade Onilude, founder and CEO, Women in Marketing CIC. “How can you do that if you don’t have an equal representation of 50% on your staff?”

Key learning for SMEs: Leadership that is more balanced between the sexes leads to happier and healthier workforces. For SMEs this is a win-win situation with a stronger bottom line and higher levels of employee satisfaction.

“You need to have people inside the company who reflect the people you’re trying to serve. How can you do that if you don’t have an equal representation of 50% on your staff?”

Ade Onilude, founder and CEO, Women in Marketing CIC

4. New Zealand: enable women to work flexibly and part-time

Research from EY in 2013 found that by employing more productive female workers in flexible roles, New Zealand and Australia could collectively save at least $1.4bn (£1.1bn) in wasted wages. For Sarah Speake, former strategic marketing director at Google, a more dynamic approach to flexible working could dramatically increase the fortunes of UK companies by enabling them to get the best out of strong people. “Consider the two women who form what used to be one role – political editor at The Guardian,” says Speake. “Heather Stewart and Anushka Asthana share the role – the benefits for the company are that you get diverse thinking and different expertise.” For Speake, the fact that job-shares of this kind are now possible shows how views of senior women are changing and being thought about differently.

Key learning for SMEs: “Some companies appear to think that women wouldn’t want the upheaval of starting a business after having a family,” says Eluned Parrott, “but there are great entrepreneurial examples, such as Anita Roddick of The Body Shop, that prove otherwise.” The dynamic SME is one that recognises this, embraces it, and enables women to work flexibly.

5. Slovenia: close the gender pay gap

The gap between men and women’s pay in Slovenia is 6%, compared to a whopping 17% in the UK. On current projections, the UK will not equal pay for women and men until 2040. Equal pay should be a given – not something that is still being fought for. According to the PwC report: “It seems unconscionable that women are still paid relatively less than men,” yet “the average working woman in the OECD still earns 16% less than her male counterpart, despite becoming better qualified.”

Key learning for SMEs: Most companies will acknowledge that well-treated, motivated staff are their best asset when it comes to building a strong business, satisfying customers and creating competitive advantage. For the SME, these advantages are perhaps even more acute – often, your employee is the face of the business.

6. Denmark: help mothers return to work

After maternity leave or longer breaks to raise families, it can be difficult for women to return to work. In Denmark, however, 85% of mothers do so. How could the UK aspire to this? “Businesses need to step up to the plate and create the right support network; be careful how you communicate to other employees how the person is returning,” says Speake. “It’s important for the company to take time to show that the returner isn’t being perceived as having preferential treatment.” A cultural change is needed in order for this to happen, Speake argues. “Because we are not especially accustomed to flexible working in the UK, the person leaving at 4pm to pick up a child may cause resentment, without it being realised that they came in at 7am, for example.”

Key learning for SMEs: SMEs tend to have more tightly bonded teams, smaller chains of command and better communication between employer and employee. Show employees who take leave of absence for family reasons that they will be welcomed back – offer flexibility, show that families are important, not something that business should ignore. The research shows that the economic benefits of this approach are sound; the change that is needed is cultural.

Looking forward

For the future, fully closing the gender pay gap in the UK could increase female earnings by £85bn and PwC estimates that increasing levels of female employment to match Sweden’s could increase GDP across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) by almost US$6tn. For SMEs in particular, consider how simple steps can ensure you make the most of female staff and don’t lose good people because procedures are not in place. “Businesses need to consider their recruitment policies and challenge themselves to address biases (in those policies) to ensure that highly skilled women are able to return to work in jobs that are commensurate with their skills,” the report says.

Legislation still has a role to play: “There are a wide range of measures that government could take to help, from equalising statutory maternity pay and statutory shared parental leave pay to offering more flexible, targeted support to a smaller number of parents for whom free childcare is most likely to make the biggest difference,” says Phil Hall, head of public affairs and public policy at The Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT). And we can learn a lot from our neighbours too – the other four in the top 10 employment equality countries globally being Luxembourg, Finland, Poland and Switzerland – behind which the UK still trails.

By ContentLive


Comments 1

James OSullivan on Wednesday, 19 April 2017 16:30
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