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"look up and beyond" to retain female talent

In a series of articles, we discuss topical issues facing industry leaders, all through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion (D, E & I).

In the second of our series, and with a more personal touch, we look at the growing concerns around retaining and promoting female talent in the workplace. Why is this personal? Because it is an issue our founder, Naeema, feels extremely passionate about and something we feel workplaces have failed to get to grips with.

Let’s start with Naeema’s story…

Look up and beyond’ is a message and daily reminder to myself. Throughout my career, perhaps my entire adult life, it’s something I’ve failed to do. I’ve looked ahead. I’ve looked across. I’ve looked down. I’ve looked at myself, my family, my team, my clients, and my workplace. What I haven’t done is looked up and beyond. As such, I’ve protected and served the best interests of those around me. That was my role. I did it well. Or so I thought.

But in doing so, my vision remained narrow and self-serving or serving to those around me. What I failed to do was to look at the bigger picture. What was coming behind me and what I should be doing to help and protect that.

I'm referring to the female talent of the future. With over 50% of those entering the legal profession in Scotland (indeed the UK) being women for at least the last 2 decades, and more than three times as many women as men applying to study law in Scotland, we need to be thinking more closely about our future talent. How can we better embrace it and what changes we need to make to ensure this talent is not lost. It’s an industry wide problem, needing industry wide solutions. And it's not only the legal profession.

I’m often left thinking about my part in what some describe as the ‘Great break up’ , and others as the ‘Flexidus’ (women leaving roles due to a lack of flexibility). Was I part of the problem?

I came from the era when girls were sold the dream of ‘you can have it all’. As a woman I learned to wear that slogan with pride and a sense of achievement not thinking of the repercussions as I lived hour by hour, day by day, week by week, trying to keep it all together. What I didn’t stop to think was the legacy I was leaving behind. I thought I was cleaning the sticky floor and breaking the glass ceiling, to pave a better path for those who would follow. Little did I realise that I was sleep walking into the new era of better informed and braver women who were switched on to the true costs of having it all.

The reality is that whilst I achieved the dream of 'having it all', I also wore the badge of honour of ‘doing it all’. I strived to be ‘perfect’, at home and at work. I ‘insisted’ on doing the cooking, cleaning, gardening and of course all the caring. While social norms, particularly in a South Asian household, expected this of me, I also expected this of myself and couldn’t let go. In that respect, I was and mostly likely still am, part of the problem.

What did this lead to? An expectation that those behind me would carry forward this legacy: ‘Have it all and do it all’. I’m learning to let go but sadly most leaders: men and women, still believe in this legacy, and that too is part of the problem.

A recent headline in the Guardian (12th June 2023) reads ‘Nine out of 10 people are biased against women, says ‘alarming’ UN report: Researchers ‘shocked’ at lack of progress, and entrenched social norms that curtail women’s chances in politics, business and work’.

It’s attention grabbing and rightly so.

The report referred to is the ‘2023 GENDER SOCIAL NORMS INDEX (GSNI), Breaking down gender biases: Shifting social norms towards gender equality, which can be found here:

It opens with this paragraph:

“Without tackling biased gender social norms, we will not achieve gender equality or the Sustainable Development Goals. Biased gender social norms—the undervaluation of women’s capabilities and rights in society—constrain women’s choices and opportunities by regulating behaviour and setting the boundaries of what women are expected to do and be. Biased gender social norms are a major impediment to achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.”

What has this to do with the workplace? These are social problems. Right?

Wrong. The reality is that our expectations don’t stop at the front door of our homes. They inevitably seep through the doors of our workplaces, and for that to change, our mindsets and behaviours must change, both at home and in the workplace.

Nor is this a problem for the legal sector alone. The GSNI data used to compile the report shows 10 years of stagnation in gender biases. Meaning those who believed things would eventually change as social attitudes and the women’s role at home adapted to more women being in the workplace, may have to think again. Add to this the recent figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showing that 43,000 women have dropped out of the UK workforce to look after family in the last year, a 3% increase on the previous year, means industry leaders need to have a close look at what causes women to leave and find fitting solutions to retain them.

The problem does not stop there. With more women, than ever before, leaving how are we going to mend the ‘leaky pipe’ to fill our talent pool and improve gender representation at the top?

It is an issue of great importance in the diversity and inclusion stakes, and needs to be tackled now and head on. Perhaps more concerning, however, is that the figures show that this is part of a sustained shift, after decades of increasing number of women entering the workforce. The real danger is that we are going backwards.

The big question therefore is ... what can we do?

Having finally, looked up and beyond, here are some of my suggestions of what to STOP doing now:

1. Stop guessing: Leaders of my era tend to second guess what the future female talent needs and wants. We presume we know the causes and therefore WE have the solutions. How can we really know when our future talent look at us and thinks ‘I don’t want it all if it means doing it all'. We need to listen better, focus more on what is being said and let them know we are listening by putting what is said into some meaningful action. When women say they want a better work/life balance, we need to make it happen. And furthermore, not begrudge them for achieving what we failed to achieve for ourselves.

2. Stop judging: Judging our new female talent against our standards is simply not fair. Comparing yourself to them, and rewarding yourself with a A+ for resilience and hard work, might just get you a fail. Workplaces have changed, societal attitudes have changed (though not fast enough), the world has changed. So must we.

3. Stop being a by-stander: We’ve done it or seen it happen. Micro-aggressions against the women who set the boundaries to have a better life/work balance: the junior colleague who leaves at 5pm to attend her pilates class. The mother who asks for a meeting to be rescheduled so she can attend her children’s sports day. The eyebrow raising, the eye rolling, the whispers, and comments from managers about ‘the good old days’. We need to call ourselves and others out on such behaviour.

4. Stop the horror stories: We’ve heard them. The CEO who missed a family funeral because of a deadline. The pregnant law firm partner whose waters broke in the office. The manager who still manages to meet her targets while on maternity leave. It's unhealthy, unrealistic and to be honest, simply sad. Sad that to survive at work, we gave up on life.

And what to START doing:

1. Start embracing the new order. Join your junior colleague in her pilates class or leave when she leaves to show you accept and respect her boundaries.

2. Start telling the truth. We did it the hard way. It got results but we missed out. We wept when we missed our children’s ‘firsts’, we were angry when we burnt dinner in a hurry to get back to our laptops, we were tired when we stayed up until 2am to finish a task and we were disappointed when we had to buy a ready-made custom from Tesco for Halloween while the 'real' mums created their own. Let's also be honest that it's hard work and that sometimes we didn't cope and cried out for help. That also has the added value of being approachable. relatable - and human.

3. Start as you mean to go on. If you offer support, see it through and be realistic about what support you can provide. This is one plate we can’t afford to drop but it can be shared. Group support and mentoring can be effective not only in sharing the load, but also in better sharing experience and knowledge.

4. Start doing what you preach. If you genuinely believe a better life/work balance is the future, show this with your actions. Set your boundaries and lead as an example. Don’t send emails at 2am with a footnote to say that you don’t expect a reply, nor expect your colleagues to be working at that time. I’ve sent and received such emails, but I’ve also listened and learnt that footnotes do little to reassure our junior colleagues. They still feel the pressure which leads then to question whether they are leadership material. Save that email and send it at 9am. I'm learning to do that and if the 'The right to switch off' scheme becomes a reality, we may all be forced to change our habits.

As for long term solutions and actions? That needs more willingness to work and learn together. It needs more people (not only women) sitting at the table, listening to the stories and finding a more fitting ending, and that’s why we have to keep looking up and beyond.

"Look up and Beyond" is a new group formed by Naeema to help better understand the barriers preventing women from reaching leadership positions and to find solutions to retain and promote more female talent in the legal sector and beyond. If you'd like to learn more about our group and find out how you can support the work we are doing, follow the link below and leave a message.

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