Industry Forum

We’ve come so far…but there’s still a long way to go.

At SMMT Industry Forum, we are in the unique position of having a Senior Management Team (SMT) that is made up of 3 females and 2 males – a definite diversion from the norm, where in 2022 the CMI (Chartered Institute of Managers) found that fewer than half of management roles in the UK (41%) were filled by women – despite the fact that women make up half of the population and workforce.

Laura Baker, our HR & Talent Management Specialist is one of those women on the SMT. To mark IWD’s 2023 Laura took part in a Q&A discussing her early career, her hopes for the future, and how we can work together to ensure that we achieve true equality for all.

As an HR Professional what do you see as the main barriers for women who want to progress in their careers?

More often than not, I see women who would happily stay at their current company, but unfortunately the chances for them to progress are not there. It was the same for me – when I started out, I worked for a very traditional company – all the main players were men, and the office was pretty much split between the ‘important’ people who had nice offices and better space and the admin/HR functions – who tended to be made up of women, in the smaller part of the office with the dodgy printer and bad lighting! It became clear that if I wanted to move up the ladder, then that company wasn’t the place for me.

Whilst we’ve seen improvements in this area, sadly, especially for women who’ve taken a career break to have children, I see that all too often, applicants are moving simply because the organisations they currently are working for, just don’t have the bandwidth for them to move up and keep pace with their male colleagues.

Picking up on your point re career breaks, how do you think society could improve on the way we deal with parental responsibilities?

I think that paternity leave is a great start, but there’s so much more we could do. Families/parents are no longer just a Mum & Dad – we have all manner of combinations, so why can’t the family decide between them who is best placed to take either all or part of maternity leave entitlement? We’re also sending mixed messages – there’s so much now on early years development and how important it is for Dads especially to spend time with their kids, but by only giving 2 weeks paternity pay we’re signalling that it’s not really important for men to spend a prolonged period of time with their kids when they are born – which just isn’t true! There’s tons of research out there that says if men had the opportunity to take extended time then they would.

We also need to do something about the prohibitive cost of childcare. The UK childcare system is the world’s second most expensive – Cyprus is the first. According to research published in March 2022 by Mumsnet and campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, 43% of mothers have said soaring childcare costs have made them consider leaving their jobs, while 40 per cent say they have had to work fewer hours than they would like to for the same reason. Not only does this disadvantage women but it has a massive effect on GDP – all of those experienced women leaving the workforce will be a real problem in the not-too-distant future, so the Government really need to listen to campaigners and look at solutions.

Given that we are seeing a greater number of women leaving the workforce due to childcare pressures, what would you as HR/Talent Management like to see for people?

At the moment, we’re in a sort of halfway house – post pandemic we have hybrid working, which sounds great, but some of the policies can be restrictive and actually hinder people rather than helping.

I’d like to see true autonomy given to people – whatever the make-up of a family, I would like for them to be able to organise their workloads/caring responsibilities in a way that of course works for business, but crucially works for them too.

We’ve seen some introduction of this from some of the larger UK organisations, with work anywhere anytime policies, but very little from mid-size organisations. I think there’s a real chance for mid-sized organisations to lead on this and start to shift a little and introduce policies that move towards autonomy for everyone.

Things are quite scary in the wider world at the moment, and in the US especially it seems that women’s rights have rowed back significantly – do you still have hope for the future and the next generation?

I do! The world definitely can be a scary place, but what I see from the young men and women who are starting to make their way up is far more openness and awareness of each other – things like mental health awareness, self-awareness, the focus on DEI, all of the things that ten years ago you’d struggle to get people to take seriously is now the norm, so while there are groups who try to destabilise, and while they might succeed in some of their aims in the short term, I genuinely believe that the next generation have an outlook and expectation of the world that is far more open. I have a young daughter, and already the way she and her friends interact and communicate is so different from when I was a kid that it gives me enormous hope for the future.