A few years back, I attended a cross-party event at the House of Commons to discuss the role of women in the workforce and breaking down barriers, not just at board level but at all levels and in all sectors.
The focus was on how to make the workforce more gender diverse, particularly in those sectors dominated by men such as construction, engineering and science.
Fast forward to this year where I attended an event held in Leeds and spoke to a managing director of a manufacturing company based in the North of England who confirmed that unfortunately her workforce was still predominantly male and their attitude on the factory floor has not changed and moved with the times. She attempted to introduce longer paternity leave, flexible working to enable the workforce to take time to spend with family, friends or just on themselves, but the culture she acquired when she took over the business was preventing this and was so ingrained it was difficult to see how it could change. So how can we change the existing culture? Does it automatically change if the talent pipeline is more diverse (not just in terms of gender but includes the next generation) and new talent is forthcoming? The questions that are asked are a) are women encouraged to enter the male dominated workforce such as construction? and b) is it a question of perception and if so, what fundamental changes have occurred to shatter stereotypes?
What we have failed to look at or consider is that changing the workforce stereotypes does not start with the notion of bringing more women into the workforce. It is a topic which has been heavily researched and covered in various articles and studies, with each talking about how to change the pipeline to ensure a more “gender” balanced workforce. Through my research though, I have found very little, if almost nothing at all, on what can we do to change the current male dominated workforce attitudes to not just diversity but such topics as longer paternity leave, flexible working, the introduction of work life balance and metal health wellbeing.
Don’t get me wrong, yes I believe more women in the these areas is better for the business. For instance, in this fast evolving world we live in and the quick pace of change in technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and quantum computing, having women’s perspectives is key in becoming more competitive. But to change culture on the factory floor is like moving a tanker – it is hard work; slow but achievable.
The introduction of the women into this arena and the next generation is all very good and will slowly change the workforce and perceptions of how things are to be run, but what of the short term? How do we effect change now? How can you go on to the factory floor and change something that is so ingrained in the culture of these men who work hard and probably still (subject to Industry 4.0) have another 15 years of working life? Bringing women into the equation is great and long overdue, but how effective will it be in changing the culture?
Maybe what we therefore need is an intervention. I am talking about re-education and taking the time to say to the current male workforce that having a work life balance is okay; job sharing and working flexibly is not just okay but you will enjoy it. The company will have to have time and commitment to any such intervention; to unpack, redesign and refresh a company’s culture means changing how people think, how the workforce are perceived in their communities with the biggest obstacle being that they are unlikely to want to change.