Creating Cultures that Choose to Challenge

By Jessica Bailey, Head of Partnerships & Client Relations

One of the missions of International Women’s Day (IWD) is to ‘forge inclusive work cultures where women’s careers thrive and achievements are celebrated. Recently, on a Facebook support group for mums in the workplace, I was disheartened, but sadly not totally surprised, at a post I saw, in direct contrast to this mission. The person who had posted was seeking some advice as she was having to homeschool two young children during the pandemic, and as a single mum was struggling to also work her regular full-time job. She had asked her employer (a male), if she could work over four days rather than five whilst she was homeschooling. The response was a flat no. To add insult to injury, he also said that if she couldn’t do the job on the fixed pattern he wanted, he would get someone else who could. I contacted her and said that PTHR would gladly (and eagerly, with fire in our bellies) help her, pro bono of course. As a company who celebrates women in the workplace and recognises the challenge that working parents have at all times, let alone during a pandemic, we all felt duty bound to see if we could offer any guidance to help her case with her shameful employer. She didn’t need our help in the end as Citizens Advice helped her work through this but the sheer injustice caused all of us, particularly our Founder, Chief Energy Officer and our very own PTHR #HeForShe, Perry, a great deal of anger. His LinkedIn post expressing so, received 40,000 views, so we were certainly not alone. I know it made all of us at PTHR extra appreciative of the supportive set up we have and thankful that female empowerment is prioritised in our work, together as a team and external to us, through our D&I work with our clients, the partners we choose to work with and our own individual missions.


I think most of us know by now that the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women, globally. As McKinsey calculated in July 2020, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs. Women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses. A combination of women in more service-related industries and a greater amount of women compared to men being the primary unpaid caregivers have contributed to such figures. In a 2019 study by The WHO, across 104 countries, women were found to make up 70% of workers in the health and social sectors and once occupation and working hours were accounted for, the gender pay gap was 11%. So not only being at the forefront of exposure to the pandemic more than men, but receiving less pay in the process. It would also be an oversight for me not to mention whilst talking about Covid-19 here, that the countries that have been most effective at minimising their countries’ death toll, as well as the pandemic’s impact on their economies, are those led by women – New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Taiwan and Germany. In contrast, virtually every country that has experienced coronavirus mortality at a rate of more than 150 per million inhabitants is male-led (and by a certain type of ‘leader’ at that). 


Moving on from the pandemic, I wanted to hear from my own colleagues (88% of whom are female) regarding their personal stories of gender affecting their own treatment in the workplace, particularly when starting out in their careers, again highlighting why the IWD workplace mission is so important. One colleague currently in her 20s described her early days in hospitality as ‘a baptism of fire as an agreeable young woman learning how to deflect and defend against unwanted advances and even propositions from poorly behaved entitled old men.’ Another colleague was given some ‘advice’ by a (male) manager when she was going for an internal promotion alongside another female. She says “looking back, I suppose he had reservations about the other woman’s application, but had to be seen as fair. So his idea of fairness was to call us both into a meeting together and lecture us on behaving like sensible girls, the work place not being a fashion show or beauty contest, and we needed to portray a professional image if we were selected for an interview. I was completely humiliated as I did feel my behaviour was always professional. We were both young, 20ish, so I didn’t have the confidence to challenge this at the time.” A third colleague described more than one occasion where her male boss would put his hand on her knee in the car whilst out to visit clients, and if the client was male, she was essentially ‘on show’ and, putting it politely, was told she had to be there because ‘he is more likely to buy from a young woman’.


All of the stories I heard seemed to end with ‘I let it slip by’ or ‘so I didn’t say anything, I just accepted it’ and one colleague described the dilemma very well by concluding “sadly, there is always more at stake for the person who is faced with the dilemma to speak out”.  These instances were, thank goodness, a good few years ago now and way before the #metoo movement so my hope is that young females starting out in their career have a somewhat less challenging time of navigating such behaviours in the workplace but nonetheless there is still so much to be done to ensure the IWD mission rings true.  As the colleague who described the interview ‘advice’ put it, “I think the takeaway I have here is, often individuals are oblivious to their actions, but through education and awareness can change, and develop a better mind-set when it comes to discrimination. Sometimes a challenge doesn’t have to be a conflict, and the person, when aware of their mistake, will do all they can to become a champion instead” (as this manager did later on, in her case).


I was thrilled to read recently that boardroom roles taken on by women have risen by 50% in five years with women now making up more than a third of 350 UK company boards. However, given the finding that firms with more female executives reportedly perform better and are more profitable (in London at least), you can see why companies are finally getting on board (pardon the pun). Listed firms, where at least one third of the bosses are women, have a profit margin more than 10 times greater than those without it, the 2020 Pipeline Women’s Count report finding suggests – companies with no women on their executive committees have a net profit of 1.5%, whereas those with more than one in three women at that level reach 15.2% net profit margin.


So what exactly can companies do to truly celebrate women in the workplace, ensure their careers thrive and flourish, ensure gender equality is not just an elusive concept and also ensure the company itself benefits by having more women at the helm?


  • Remove barriers to access to full-time employment (consider flexible work patterns rather than just the 9-5, remote or hybrid working).
  • Be open to solutions to avoid talented women being driven out of the workplace (such as job sharing, part-time senior roles, affordable childcare, paid family leave).
  • Empower women to speak out against unequal pay, make women more aware of higher-paid roles, push against the damaging stereotype of gendered jobs – and, of course, simply pay women fairly.
  • Evaluate maternity and paternity leave (more on this in my prior blog post here).
  • Hire employees who have core values consistent with embracing true gender equality to ensure the fit with the company’s desired culture.
  • Increase female representation at executive level, giving women greater influence in shaping the business and culture of their company – hopefully for the better.
  • Offer personalised approaches to issues preventing career advancement in order to overcome issues beyond gender (women of colour, women with disabilities and LGBT women are still extra under-represented in the workplace).
  • Encourage ‘invisible’ workers’ to have a voice, promoting inclusion and belonging via a platform such as Aequip.


And how exactly do we, at PTHR, ensure that female empowerment is prioritised in our work? By being a remote organisation (long before Covid hit), we have created a self-managed, flexible set up, which acknowledges that you can still be a mum, work part time and have a flourishing career, where you are relied upon, valued and not pushed into a role that is more ‘manageable’ for your personal situation, but less satisfying and not reflective of your vast experience and skills. We have officially become a 4 Day Week organisation, with ‘Wellness Wednesday’ a day for doing ‘whatever is good for the soul’, again acknowledging that women are balancing work and family life and this punctuation in the working week is greatly valued by all of us, regardless of gender and situation. 


Every Tuesday we hold our ‘Very Interesting Person’ female-centric sessions where we’ve invited (mostly) women for a 60-minute learning-based conversational sharing session, on far-reaching topics. So far we’ve heard from Natahlie Nahai (consumer behaviour expert and author of Webs of Influence), Andreea Runceanu (violinist, composer and one quarter of Romanian contemporary/classical musical ensemble Amadeus) and Joanna Survana (Founder & Chief Kindness Officer of #BeTheRipple Movement to overcome bias and discrimination in the workplace). Celebrating these women and their awe-inspiring work and careers has been a weekly highlight for us all. 


We’ve also partnered with our favourite husband and wife duo Kate & Neil Usher to co-facilitate two Labs with us – The Menopause Lab and Hybrid by Design, respectively. Both are fantastic ways for employers to learn, encourage culture change, reassess current processes and attitudes, and essentially make the workplace a better place, for women particularly. We’ve set up our Spiritual Investors Board (critical friends with different lived experiences from us who advise us on inclusion) and plan to hold our ‘Difference’ event this year. We’re making fine tracks with our partnership with 100% female-owned, similarly souled Stateside consultancy, LivingHR (with a monthly co-authored spot in HRZone). And despite some dubious and inappropriate comments regarding us being all women bar one (would anyone question this if it were the other way round?), we are all unanimous in our beliefs that, despite some of us having somewhat sleazy starts to our careers, we have never worked in a more supportive, less sleazy organisation than we do now. 


A few of us at PTHR are mums to young boys and I know I don’t just speak for myself when I say how proud I am that my son will grow up seeing his mum encouraged and celebrated in the workplace (thank you Perry), and as a result is more likely to naturally grow up to be my very own #HeForShe workplace ambassador himself. And let’s hope that by the time he is of working age, there is a much healthier balance in the number of female world leaders than there is currently (21 out of 193 countries have a female as head of state or government at present), perhaps especially should any other unwanted, unprecedented and unprepared-for world crisis come our way in the future.