Why gender equality is better for business

Written by on 15th March 2011
Category: Business Travel

The centenary of International Women’s Day was celebrated nationwide last week with marches, concerts and other special events, as well as extensive media coverage: a quite remarkable phenomenon for a country that usually lets the day pass without a whimper. Yet, in the SilverDoor offices – as, we suspect, in offices across the country – the women’s cheers were nearly drowned out by the male contingent’s anguished calls for a day of their own. So why is International Women’s Day still important, for men as much as women, for the UK as much as worldwide?

When the day began in 1911, the world was a very different place, and, after years of life-changing legislative and social change, it’s easy to see why the battle appears to have been won. In the UK, this year’s events were more celebratory than revolutionary, with bake sales and debates rather than fevered protests, which were spearheaded by successful female stars who are proof of the opportunities now open to British women.

However, the events were arranged to act as a reminder that not only do women lack equal rights abroad, but equality has not been achieved at home, particularly when it comes to business and politics. Britain still falls far behind many other European countries when it comes to gender equality, not to mention other countries outside of the western world. In an Independent on Sunday survey of female representation in parliament, the country came an astonishing 53rd, after Cuba, Mozambique and Angola and tied with Uzbekistan and Eritrea. At present, only 16 FTSE 100 companies have a female executive director and 18 of the top 100 firms have no women at all on their board. In the next largest 250 companies there are just 24 female executive directors – 4% of the total.

The dearth of women in important positions, whether in small businesses or FTSE companies, local councils or parliament, affects how much say women have in policy-making, business and all the other processes that shape how the UK works. Of course, it’s vital for women that we change this, but it’s important for men too. For all those who decry the lack of an International Men’s Day, try this: a society that’s equal is better for everyone.

Firstly, the way gender works in the UK can restrict men as much as women: there’s far more pressure on them to return to work soon after their children are born, for example, and the average length of paternity leave means they don’t have much choice. They even have to work longer before retiring, despite the fact that women live longer.

Moreover, women can shape businesses in positive ways. While they can be as bullish and aggressive as men (Margaret Thatcher was no shrinking violet), it’s proven that women can bring different perspectives to a business, allowing corporations to engage better with their female customers. Their presence brings significant financial rewards too: according to a recent report by management consultants McKinsey, companies with more women on their boards obtain a 42% higher return on sales, a 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity.

So how do we go about making it easier for women to enter top positions? Attitudes can take years to change, but there are concrete ways in which business can be made more female-friendly.

While the top jobs in the UK are theoretically open to women, they are still not equally represented in public and corporate life because working practices make the business world less appealing, and less practical, for women to work in. Worldwide, women are still responsible for the majority of domestic work, from raising children to housework and, as the 2010 Global Gender Gap report argues, the reason they haven’t achieved economic equality in countries such as ours is that they struggle to make these responsibilities compatible with full-time work. Many therefore choose part-time or flexible work, which is often less well paid and carries less responsibility and influence.

At a time when attitudes towards childcare have shifted and men take more responsibility for children, there is plenty of scope for change in this respect that would benefit both genders. Better provision for paternity leave, for example, would allow fathers to share more of the burden, while improved childcare facilities and more flexible working hours would take some of the pressure from both men and women. They would also make it easier for women (or men) with children to attend the all-important networking events that can build contacts and shape careers.

The business travel industry is actually very progressive compared to other sectors: according to a recent feature in the Air and Business Travel News, 65% of people who work in the industry are female, with senior management roles filled equally with men and women. SilverDoor reflects this trend, with more female staff than male staff. However, these figures are not mirrored in the numbers of women travelling on business: over 40% of men travelled on business last year compared with less than a quarter of women, and a reluctance to commit to business travel itself can be a significant reason behind the lack of women in high-powered jobs.

For the significant proportion of British women who have childcare responsibilities, it can be incredibly difficult to work away from home; it can also be more of a wrench to tear themselves from home and family and leave them in the care of others. Furthermore, living and working abroad can be a much more intimidating prospect for women, who are more likely to feel unsafe walking around unfamiliar neighbourhoods or travelling from airport to accommodation late at night.

We recommend serviced apartments for female business travellers because they provide a self-contained, comfortable environment that can make staying abroad much less of a daunting experience. When staying in a serviced apartment, they needn’t venture out for meals, to do laundry or to use internet cafes; in fact, they can do almost anything – including talking to friends and family – from the security of their apartment. Many apartment providers will offer transport to and from the airport or train station, while some will offer extra facilities, such as shopping services or an on-site food shop, which can make life even easier. Apartment providers with 24 hour security and receptions also help create a more secure environment.

Because our booking process allows our clients to discuss their needs with a member of staff, we will be happy to advise concerned female clients on which apartments are best for them. A great deal needs to be done to make UK business more accommodating to female employees, but we hope we can make a small contribution.