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Grasping the nettle

The Davies’ report on women in the boardroom and the news that youth employment in the UK rose to 1.027 million in 2011 highlight the need for companies to take an active role in encouraging inclusivity in the workplace. But in 2012, what does diversity really mean in the workplace? Carol McCarthy EMEA HR Business Leader at Infosys, explores.

The subject of diversity is a broad one, and there are a many initiatives businesses can take to encourage an inclusive environment within their company. For example, many organisations have been trying to increase the number of women they employ and promote. The idea of “having it all” is one that graces the pages of numerous women’s magazines and the story lines of multiple romantic comedies. The modern image of a wife and mother, who is also a high flying business woman, is something that many women aspire to. In many ways, women can be engendered to believe that being anything less than a superwoman is not good enough. And yet, in reality, finding the perfect work/life balance is often easier said than done and the pressures on women trying to achieve this ideal may be one of the reasons behind a recent study found that women are three times more likely to take stress-related absences off work than men2. Juggling work and children is not the sole reason for why companies face challenges when recruiting women. Issues, such as cultural differences and trouble sourcing talent in male dominated industries, mean that the task of encouraging a higher quota of women in the workforce can be difficult.

However, there have been some substantial improvements in encouraging more women in the workplace, for example, a recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission3, which annually measures the number of women in powerful positions in business and government, found that in 2011 there were more women in top roles than in 2008. In addition, steps such as the Government’s decision to introduce extended paternity leave last year have helped men take an increasing role in family life. With the number of ‘stay at home’ fathers rising ten times in the last decade4, there does seem to be more of a focus on sharing family responsibility between both parents. And yet, despite changing attitudes to parenting, it is still often mothers who put their working careers on hold to look after children. For those that do decide to stay in employment, the demands of being a parent whilst maintaining a high level of work performance can be challenging. In a world where women can often find themselves pulled in conflicting directions, what can employers do to make things easier?

Part time working can be a great option for anyone seeking to find a better balance between home and work life, especially if that involves looking after children. However, it is not the only option and, there are additional steps that companies can take to ensure employees feel valued and experience career growth. To start with, employers need to create a working environment that actively supports any employee, and this should not be exclusive to women, who might need to work flexibly. An example of this could be providing support, on internal forums where employees can discuss challenges they are having with co-workers who may be going through the same problems. In addition, if an employee feels unable to discuss such matters with their managers for some reason, company mentoring schemes can be a good solution for workers to gain advice which is independent of their day-to-day role. This can not only boost moral by building levels of support networks amongst employees as they progress through the company, but in the long run it can also provide valuable staff experience within the business.

In addition, there are steps businesses can take to attract the best female talent without introducing quotas in the hiring process. For example, businesses could have at least one woman on recruitment panels to ensure both genders are represented in all hiring or promotion decisions. When dealing with internal promotions, these panels can also be beneficial as female staff can feel more confident that any promotions or pay increases will be based on skills and experience. In addition, they also provide a forum where any confusion over parity in wages can be discussed in an independent and safe environment. By establishing these kinds of practices, businesses can help create an atmosphere of equality in the workplace, where success is determined by performance. These ideas are already in practice in organisations across the globe and with great success. Currently at Infosys for example, we have 130,000 employees, 34 percent of which are women. In 2000, when the company’s level of women in the workforce was 12 percent, Infosys decided to adopt a range of initiatives to increase its quota of women, including several of those I’ve already mentioned. At Infosys, we take the view that HR decisions directly affect the success of the company. This view has contributed to the success of the company and today, aside from the public sector, Infosys is the largest recruiter of women in India.

One of our most successful initiatives is the Infosys Women Inclusivity Network (IWIN),a scheme that promotes a gender-sensitive work environment, to help manage the unique aspirations and needs of women. For example, it provides avenues for vocational, personal and psychological counsel to enable the professional and personal development of women. This includes seminars, programmes and networking events held by women in senior positions who give advice to their colleagues on how they reach their role and for those who have children, on how they can successfully balance the demands of family and working life. In addition, the new Family Matters Network provides support to employees on parenting matters such as providing on site health centres and providing new mothers returning to work with practical advice on childcare. At Infosys, we also regularly monitor metrics on how many women are in the pipeline for senior management and what steps are being taken to encourage female employees to return from maternity leave. Currently, 89 percent of our employees who go on maternity return to the company, a statistic that has increased from 30 percent five years ago.

However, despite our best efforts, we are facing a challenge that many companies in the engineering and science sector are having to deal with, simply more men are entering this industry than women. Over the last few years, we have experienced a decrease in the number of students studying information technology (IT) which has left a skills shortage in the industry. On top of this, traditionally the industry has been male dominated, especially in Europe, which has meant that the pool of talented female workers has become increasingly scarce. In fact, last year 28,871 more boys opted to take triple science GCSEs than girls5. If left unaddressed, this will have a serious long term impact on the industry. In order to counteract this trend, Infosys has taken proactive steps in encouraging women to enter the field of IT. One way is by targeting school leavers, and we have invited students onto our campuses in India for a day long interaction with senior leaders. From an undergraduate level, we have done this through our InStep programme, a flagship student internship scheme which partners with leading global universities, allowing students to visit different business schools throughout Europe.

By trying to appeal to young people throughout their education, we aim to dispel some of the myths surrounding IT and engineering, so that it becomes a viable option by the time the students come to making their future career choice. As a company, we have found this approach very successful and in India, we have now a 40:50 women to men ratio amongst new recruits. We believe through taking these steps at an early level, industries that are particularly male dominated can increase diversity within their workforce. Employers are the lynchpin in encouraging a fair and equal work environment, however they are not the only people involved in the process and Governments must also play their part. The UK saw a positive step forward last year when Lord Davies, Minister for Trade, Investment and Small Business, called on the FTSE 100 companies to increase the number of women on their boards from nine percent in 2011 to 25 percent by 20156. In addition, Government initiatives, such as eSkills, which encourage young women to enter into traditionally more male dominated career fields, such as the technology industry, are also vital. Infosys has worked alongside the UK government, providing direction for their ‘Girls in IT’ programme by taking part in curriculum reviews and supporting gender-specific activities in schools to encourage female students to pursue a career in this field.

Ultimately, diversity and equality is not just about helping women; by definition, businesses should strive to support the work/life aspirations of all employees. By adopting some of the steps above, HR leaders should be able to make some progress in achieving this. A recent study report by Forbes magazine argued the case for women in management, showing companies with a three of more female board members performed better than those without by on average 84 percent in sales, 60 percent return on invested capital and 46 percent return on equity7. These results demonstrate that encouraging diversity in the work place may not only improve moral and inclusivity in the workplace, it can also make business sense too.