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International Women's Day: 5 policies to attract and retain more women in the workplace

View profile for Kathryn Dooks

Clients often ask me whether there are any particular HR policies they can implement to try to attract and retain more women in the workplace. On International Women’s Day, with its message this year of “be bold for change”, I’ve set out five key policies which can be tailored to meet the size and culture of your organisation.

Aside from the obvious policies such as enhanced maternity and shared parental pay and a flexible working policy which may help to attract and retain women with childcare responsibilities, there are a few other interesting policies which are worth considering (and which will benefit the whole workforce):

1. Flexible working protocol

Rather than just having a flexible working policy which sets out the procedure for making an application for flexible working and the basis on which applications will be considered, companies may want to consider developing a more expansive “protocol” which provides guidance to employees and managers on the sorts of patterns which the employee and their manager may want to consider, the considerations which both sides should bear in mind when agreeing a flexible pattern, and advice on making a success of flexible working both for the employee and the manager. Companies should consider how the protocol is rolled out and may want to consult staff on the content, gathering best practice from across the firm and having an open discussion about the challenges and opportunities for flexible working. This should help to change attitudes and behaviours company-wide by showcasing examples of when flexible working has worked well.

2. Career progression pathways

Setting out in a clear, easily accessible document the pathways to career progression and what is expected of employees at each stage in order to progress will help all employees to have a clearer view of where they are aiming for and what they need to do to achieve promotion. It is also best practice to create a promotions panel rather than leaving the decision up to individuals, to ensure moderation of decisions, where possible. This will help to avoid allegations that promotions are based on a “boys’ club”, “presenteeism” or unconscious bias, particularly where the promotions panel comprises a diverse group from across the firm.

3. Mentoring, reverse mentoring and sponsorship

Mentoring is recognised as one of the key methods of staff development and there is much evidence to show that women progress better and faster when they have more experienced role models to learn from (whether male or female), particularly in technical sectors. Mentoring involves giving feedback and advice and helps to develop a broader pipeline of female talent within an organisation. It can also be tailored to mentor staff through specific changes in their careers such as going on and returning from maternity leave and specific career gateways/promotions, leading to better retention.

Mentoring should be contrasted with sponsorship. Sponsorship goes beyond mentoring and involves the senior leader using their influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee. Women typically receive less sponsorship than men within organisations. But effective sponsorship can aid women’s visibility within an organisation, leading to increase promotion opportunities.

Reverse mentoring pairs senior executives (often men) with more junior employees (often women) to share knowledge, skills and experience. An added benefit of reverse mentoring is an increase empathy for the concerns of more junior employees within the organisation which can, in turn, empower business leaders to discuss these issues more widely and bring about change.

4. Work allocation policy

Many professional services firms have started to implement work allocation programmes: in other words, rather than senior managers delegating work to juniors themselves, a work allocation manager assesses the utilisation of the workforce, areas of interest amongst junior staff and development needs and then allocates the work accordingly. This helps to reduce unconscious bias and broaden the development and skills of all staff but also increases the efficiency of the practice by ensuring utilisation is more uniform.

5. Diversification of talent acquisition

Think about where you are advertising for roles and the type of language you use in your advertisements. Are you advertising in places where women will look for jobs? Can you target specific job-boards in addition to your usual methods of talent acquisition, to encourage more applications from women? Is the language you use putting off applicants? A financial services broker client recently experimented with the language used in advertisements and found a significant up-tick in applications from women. Another key trend is the use of “blind cvs” – removing information from a CV which identifies the candidate’s gender or ethnicity. Research has demonstrated a clear correlation between increased diversity in an organisation and the use of name-blind CVs and organisations including the Civil Service, UCAS and EY are adopting this practice in recruitment.