Maintaining the momentum of the equality movement post-pandemic

Alison Webster, CEO at Thames Valley Berkshire LEP

UN figures suggest that work over the last 25 years to increase gender equality could be wiped out by Covid-19. Given how long it has taken to make the gains we have in gender parity, this is a tragedy. 

Apart from being fair and right, the reality is that gender equality is good for business. 

According to Forbes, inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time; companies with low rates of both gender and racial diversity are 29% more likely to make less money. As my colleague, LEP Board Director Sarah Atkinson pointed out in her recent piece on diversity assumptions, “rather than a tick-box HR exercise, diversity should be seen as a core business improvement programme.” 

That’s why, following International Women’s Day and in support of Women’s History Month, we’ve devoted March to championing women in our community. 

While gender parity is a global issue, as a LEP we must look closer to home and be open about the challenges we face as a community. Currently, only 20% of the 588 high-growth companies in Thames Valley Berkshire LEP are female-founded, lower than the national average of 25%, When it comes to enterprise in general,  Slough has the UK’s lowest proportion of female entrepreneurs at 26%. 

We know there is work to be done to ensure we are an attractive and supportive environment for female founders and entrepreneurs. With initiatives such as our  Business Growth Hub  to support businesses flourish, change is coming. As Catalyst South, we work collaboratively as an alliance of LEPs across the South East on issues of shared interest. At the recent Innovate UK Southern Pioneers event Catalyst South hosted a predominantly female panel discussion on how a new AI programme the LEPs are using is helping to identify and support female business owners.

To be authentic,  it’s crucial to “be the change we want to see”, and I’m proud that 50% of the LEP board members are female. With March 2021 marking my one-year anniversary as the first female CEO of Thames Valley Berkshire LEP, it’s my mission to make sure we continue to promote equality and amplify women’s potential across all sectors, all year round and not just on International Women’s Day.

So, what advice would we give businesses to support their female employees and drive greater equality?  

Focusing on flexible working, leave policies and wages is fundamental. This is especially important given that so much research now points to women having been disproportionately impacted by Covid-induced pressures such as childcare and redundancy in hard-hit industries. 

To do that, businesses must create a culture of openness and understanding. It all starts with knowledge – ask employees what support they need and work together to create solutions. 

An open culture is supported  by collecting data to understand what is really going on in your organisation. Information such as who has dependents and who has taken unpaid leave or parental leave can build a profile of where your organisational pinch-points are. 

According to research by McKinsey before the pandemic, bridging the gender pay gap could boost UK GDP by up to £150bn by 2025. It could also help get up to 840,000 more women into work. Mandated data collection and analysis such as Gender Pay Gap reporting provide a starting point, but more can be done. 

In our Recovery and Renewal Plan, published last month we highlighted how we will help employers to attract the best employees – inclusion is vital to building back better. This means increasing the number of people in ‘good work’ and addressing inequalities – the gender pay gap is  just one such example. While companies have been given six months’ grace on pay gap reporting, if you are ready to report, why not get a head start on understanding your organisation’s position? Show proactivity and demonstrate commitment. 

Everything we do is underpinned by inclusivity. From our work to support employment and skills to delivering infrastructure that connects people and places, our commitment to community is built on a foundation of rich diversity and ingrained inclusivity. 

While our focus this month is on gender, as an LEP we are committed to making Berkshire an inclusive place to live and work – and, as we know, inclusivity goes beyond gender. As LEP Board Director, Jacinta George touched on in her piece on diversity, from race and religion to LGBTQ+ and neurodiversity, we champion a broader notion of diversity and inclusion so that no one is left behind. 

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