Difference is what gives diversity its power
The Women’s Utilities Network (WUN), recently surveyed its members to find out how they feel about working in the sector. The survey was done in the context of 85% of member organisations having Diversity and Inclusion Policies in place, but still only 24% of Board members are women, and a woeful 14% are in Executive positions. At a macro level only 17% of employees in the sector are women compared to a national average of 47%. The survey was really trying to get under the skin of why, whilst the need for diversity is clearly recognised, progress is still pretty dismal.
On one hand there is probably nothing too ground breaking in the survey results. Most women who read the report almost shrug their shoulders and recognise all that is written. Probably most revealing is that there is no single issue that shines out, but a gradual and persistent accumulation of small cultural and behavioural things which over time have a negative impact on women’s confidence and they are left wondering ‘is it me?’.
The effect of regularly being the only woman in a room over time is exhausting. In the same way as men have their tribes, women need them to. The sense of belonging cannot be underestimated. Looking up and across and seeing no female role models makes it challenging to maintain an authentic style. To fit in, it is often easier for women to adopt to behaviours and styles that are not natural. The result often ultimately leads to the decision to leave the sector.
Solutions today tend to be focused on helping the women change- they are sent on courses to build confidence; become more assertive or develop leadership traits…to behave and act more like men. This is not, and never will be, the answer. Women need to be able to develop and adopt their own leadership styles, they need role models and supporters who will actively promote them, recognising that their skills and behaviours are different from the prevailing norm. Difference is what gives diversity its power.
The conclusions from the survey are therefore relatively simple:
- Women need more positive role models in senior positions. Importantly, if there are not role models visible within organisations, women need to be supported in joining networks, such as WUN, so that they can find their tribe and get the inspiration and network of supporters that they need.
- Flexibility in role adaptation and working patterns is needed throughout careers for men and women. Maternity & paternity leave, child care, school pick ups and parental care need to be accommodated for all, but there is no getting away from the fact that women often manage the lion’s share. Women are not looking to work or commit less, but it is a two way process, in managing work/life challenges.
- Many organisations have got a lot better at adapting their recruitment processes to attract women to organisations. But to keep them, there needs to be adaptation to standard processes to ensure that the different skills and behaviours that women bring to an organisation are fully credited. Unconscious bias and perceptions of ‘boys clubs’ are still a major blocker to women being promoted.
- Finally, and probably most importantly, there needs to be recognition by everyone that it is not the women that need fixing! Organisational cultures, working environments and accepted behaviours are probably the biggest blockers to women’s development. This is where the focus needs to be.
It is not all doom and gloom. There are clearly some great things going on in many organisations, and anyone who has been at a WUN event, met a mentee or listened to a podcast, will concur that there is no lack of talent or energy held by women in the sector. It is also always great to see and hear the feedback from men on what WUN is doing, and those who have attended events are genuinely blown away by the women and buzz in the room. As we continue to grow in membership, and gain the support of more partners, we really feel that the momentum is building to support women in achieving their potential in their chosen careers.
Jo Butlin, WUN Founder & Board Member