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Management strategies: better balanced SMEs

Improving the gender balance of a company is not simply about being inclusive; it’s about enhancing the business and its bottom line. What are the tangible ways in which gender-balanced boardrooms and workplaces improve the business outlook?

Last updated: 15 Aug 2019 5 min read

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For Lisa Forde, director of online stationery companies Dotty About Paper and Tree of Hearts, managing an all-female team of just under a dozen people has allowed her to see what women can bring to the table: communication, collaboration and empathy.

“It might sound like a cliche, but my team has shown great skill in working together and helping each other through problems,” says Forde. “But women have historically been overlooked in favour of their male counterparts. Their skills have been underused.”

While more and more women are entering the labour market, according to the Hays Gender Diversity Report 2017, 84% of them believe gender barriers still exist in the modern workplace. These barriers are preventing them from accessing the same opportunities and career progression as their male counterparts.

So how can management teams set about improving the gender balance of their company and what are the benefits on offer?

Gender inequality in the workplace can be traced all the way back to the recruitment process, in particular job advertisements. Cyber-security firm Panaseer has utilised the predictive algorithms of Textio, an online tool that can scan text and pick up on words associated with masculine traits. The company wanted to introduce gender-neutral wording into its job advertisements to encourage more women to apply for roles, especially its data science vacancies.

At the end of its first recruitment drive using Textio, Panaseer saw a 60% increase in skilled female applicants, says co-founder and chief of staff Sophie Harrison.

A more balanced business outlook

Stripping away words that could dissuade female candidates from applying for positions they’re more than qualified and experienced for is only half of the job. The other half is making them feel like they’d fit into the workplace culture.

Forde believes it’s helpful to have at least one woman involved in the hiring process and present during any interview. A female candidate can infer from this that the company takes diversity seriously, rather than simply being told it does by an all-male interview panel and then having to trust that they’re committed to it. The presence of a female interviewer could also reduce any unconscious bias.

“A married man may be viewed as a stable and organised candidate, but a married woman may be written off because of worries about maternity leave,” says Forde.

“The smartest leaders recognise that diversity is not a decision you make because you want to do good, but because it makes good business sense”Sophie Devonshire, CEO, the Caffeine Partnership

At the end of the day, a company that’s shown to be taking diversity seriously from the off is likely to benefit in the long run from a diversity of voices, life experiences and ideas, helping it to innovate quickly.

“A diverse team leads to diverse thinking,” says Meena Chander, founder and CEO of B2B events management firm Events Together. “Diverse thinking equates to positive organisational success and employees feeling happier and valued. This means there’s higher employee engagement and retention, less money being spent on advertising for staff and less time spent on training the new staff.”

Improving the bottom line

For Paul Hallett, co-founder of Vet-AI, a Leeds-based veterinary research and development company, as long as the interviewer respects the company’s values, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s a man or women leading the interview.

“For us, it’s not a question of gender – it’s about putting the right person in charge of the process who understands the company’s culture, goals and objectives, one of which is to recruit with a gender balance in mind,” he says.

A quarter of Vet-AI’s tech team is female – only 15% of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) roles in the UK are filled by women, according to PwC – while its veterinary team is 80% female, and its marketing and PR team is an even balance of both men and women.

For companies in industries where customers aren’t primarily women, there’s still plenty to be gained from having a balanced workplace and boardroom, as long as it’s not seen to be a box-ticking exercise. “The smartest leaders recognise that diversity is not a decision you make because you want to do good, but because it makes good business sense,” says Sophie Devonshire, CEO of strategic consultancy the Caffeine Partnership.

It’s important to remember, argues Forde, that while women do share certain qualities, gender doesn’t determine who someone is. "Everyone is an individual, bringing their own unique skills to the table," she says.

Five steps to consider within your SME

  1. Make it a company policy that you’ll always interview at least one woman for any advertised position.
  2. Be careful not to list too many essential skills on job advertisements. Research has shown that women shy away from applying for roles if they don’t meet 100% of the qualification requirements; men, meanwhile, will apply even if they only meet 60%.
  3. If your company is in a male-dominated industry, consider your profile and how you can expose your brand to women who want a career in the industry, says Nigel Davies, MD of software firm Claromentis, which hosts events at its office in Brighton that teach programming skills to underrepresented groups.
  4. Invest and provide training for female colleagues to support them to progress into senior roles that are traditionally seen as male-oriented, says Hallett.
  5. Consider what perks you could offer, such as flexible working or on-site childcare, which would allow working mothers to feel like your workplace is a good fit for them.
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