International Women’s Day: Seven reasons why employee ownership can help break down gender bias in the workplace

The EOA is marking International Women’s Day by highlighting the opportunity employee ownership has to break down gender bias in the workplace.

International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women, while calling for gender parity across the globe – with the theme this year being #BreakTheBias.

To highlight this ‘opportunity’ employee ownership has to #BreakTheBias, Helen Moreton has provided her insights into why being EO can create gender equality.

Helen, pictured, is well placed to offer a broad view on the employee ownership sector as an experienced non-executive director, consultant, and learning and development specialist.

As well as being the founder of Boombox Consulting and helping host and advise at EOA events, Helen spent 18 years within the John Lewis Partnership in a variety of roles.

Helen, who is passionate about being “a big advocate for giving people a space to be heard”, is also director chair of trustees at Turley and Go Ape, independent trustee for Lush and Architype, and also chair of the co-owner council for Go Ape and Riverford Organic Farmers.

Here, Helen shares her thoughts and seven reasons why employee ownership can help break gender bias in the workplace.

1. A necessity for EO businesses

The conversation isn’t just about gender, it is more broadly around greater diversity. So, although we are specifically talking about International Women’s Day, within EO businesses – and certainly the ones I work with – there is a great commitment to ensuring there is greater representation in all ways throughout the organisation. It’s seen as a necessity, rather than a nice to do.

Furthermore, leaders are not leading with ego, they are leading with employee ownership in mind and that means you make quite different decisions and listen to people in a different way than you might do if you believe you have all the answers.

It’s not to say non-EO businesses can’t do that, of course they can, but I think what employee ownership gives you is that really useful narrative and a platform from which to do it well.

2. More than just a statistic

Employee ownership is about having strong engagement and giving people more opportunities to be involved in the business than they would do traditionally, and then having that say and that voice properly influencing leadership thinking and decision-making.

Employees are not just treated as numbers. For me, that’s why you see within employee ownership that voice around representation being heard and being taken seriously, it’s not just then a target, a percentage or a policy that says we must do this or achieve that around gender equality.

3. Power of pulling together

Just because you are employee-owned doesn’t mean that you don’t face the same challenges other organisations face, for example around gender equality, but it means the way you face them is different.

One of the most powerful statements I heard when we were talking about diversity and inclusion – and this was with one of my councils which was predominantly male – was someone asking: “But who isn’t in this room that we should be having this conversation with?”

It’s looking around and thinking ‘who do we need to bring into this conversation’. And that’s the whole point of employee ownership, knowing you don’t have all the answers, but knowing collectively hopefully you do, or you’ll go much further towards having this solution if you pull together and collaborate.

4. Greater representation in senior roles

Traditionally, a lot of boards will be male heavy and if you can’t see yourself represented on that board then it creates a mindset of ‘oh, well that’s not for me, I wouldn’t be able to do that’.

But my experience within employee-owned businesses is boards, gender wise, are more representative, and certainly on trust boards there’s a lot of female representation, which all helps to break down those assumptions and, as a result, you get greater representation than you might get elsewhere.

Of course, there is still work to do, and within the organisations I work it’s definitely on their agendas as to how they get more diversity within senior roles and to understand the reasons why there might be more men in senior roles than women.

5. Breaking down barriers

By allowing that employee voice to be heard and letting it influence what you do, within employee-owned businesses there is already the foundations laid for people to have that conversation when they think barriers are getting in the way.

There are mechanisms in place – whether that be employee councils, trust boards or forums – to escalate that voice. Organisations can then speak to their people to understand the barriers that are getting in the way and be part of the solution to eradicating those barriers.

You also need to establish what is a real barrier and what is perceived. There might be some stuff you can remove quite easily because it’s about assumptions or misinterpretations rather than it being an actual barrier.

6. Listening comes first

There’s a recognition that these things don’t change overnight, so there has to be a really good plan in place. But you have to really listen to your people before you get stuck into making a plan to understand what those barriers are and co-create the solutions to move it forward.

Without doing the listening, you don’t know what it is you’re trying to fix and all you’re trying to do then is fix statistics, which you can’t do without resolving what are perhaps some of the fundamental issues that might get in the way, such as the fact a lot of women think they can’t hold senior roles because they’re part-time, which shouldn’t be the case.

7. Seek out advice and best practice

A couple of the businesses I help work with an external adviser on diversity and inclusion, so they’re making sure they are looking to external best practice where they need it if they haven’t got that capability in house.

It’s then about putting in place interventions that might overcome any barriers and make transitioning to a more senior role, for example, more possible.

These include programmes for parental coaching; training and development; coaching on confidence; flexible job-sharing options; and opportunities around smarter recruitment, with hybrid working meaning you can employ someone from outside your area.

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