Is it time to pour the tea yet?
A view from Sue Unerman

Is it time to pour the tea yet?

MediaCom's chief transformation officer questions how far we have yet to go to achieve gender equality in business.

Twelve months ago Kathryn Jacob and I published The Glass Wall: Success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business (Profile Books). 

Since publication we have given over 50 talks in companies in many sectors ranging from the civil service to banking via media companies and the entertainment business. Businesses have recognised that they are better off in terms of leadership and profit if they have more women leaders.  Since this time last year there has been plenty of talk.  What has and hasn’t changed, and what more is there to do?

Our book is packed full of strategies for women to progress, and for businesses to ensure that they promote talent irrespective of gender. The Glass Wall is the invisible barrier that exists in many workplaces and prevents women from fulfilling their ambitions. 

One of our most controversial recommendations (it is Britain after all) turned out to be that if you are a woman on the way up you should not pour the tea or coffee in a meeting as it will immediately give the impression that you’re not there to make decisions or give advice, but to help with the catering.  This formed one of the headlines in our coverage in the national press: "Don’t make the tea: how to get to the top in 8 steps", and a big part of our talking points on Woman’s Hour.

Someone recently remarked to me: the senior men out there must be "spitting feathers" waiting for their tea to be poured.  We always acknowledged that if you’re the boss, it is okay to pour the tea.  Are there enough women bosses to change our view?  Is it time yet to fill those teacups?

Not by recent evidence no.

The gender pay revelations from new legislation that requires big companies to publish the facts have proved very useful, but make stark reading.

The BBC got lots of publicity when it appeared that by far the majority of highly paid stars were men.  As the celebrated Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey put it: "Whether we’re black, white, brown or pink with green spots, we’re the majority. And we deserve to be valued in the same way as men – for our brains, our experience and our expertise. A gender pay gap at the BBC makes it look faintly ridiculous. Why would young women want to work there?" 

Company after company has revealed pay deficiencies between men and women in sectors as different as banking, the civil service (where the gender pay gap is widening at a quarter of organisations) and even the church.  

In our own sector the 2017 IPA census showed a reduction in the number of women leaders year on year.

There’s been a row at the seminal 21st century company, Google,  when an employee claimed that biological differences accounted for the pay gap. The man responsible for the memo in question left the company, but as Kathryn and I can attest, he is certainly not the only man who thinks that this might be the case.  We know because it is a question we get asked at the talks we give. 

Gender assumptions start early and they run deep. (Did you see the BBC 2 show No More Boys and Girls?  The increased confidence that the girls acquired when boys and girls were treated the same was very moving).  Every manager needs to go out of their way to ensure that they’re fair to talent of every kind, whatever their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability or age.  The EHRC points out here that many more measures need to be taken to speed up equality.  

Where targets are being set for board gender parity at big companies the current solution to meet them often seems to lie in appointing more women NEDs rather than executive directors to the board (where the real power in decision making lies.) 

Whatever barriers you face to the career you would like, it is crucial to develop resilience and a set of strategies to deal with every barrier to success that everyday working can throw at you.

Confidentially, Kathryn and I have been surprised by some of the issues that have been raised at our talks by the attendees.  Not because we haven’t come across them but because they are much more common than we thought.

Not enough has changed.  Time for business to take a good long hard look at itself, in every sector, and make real changes to ensure that the Glass Walls come down and talent thrives. Time for every woman to ensure that she doesn’t get frustrated in her ambitions.  Sometimes you might need to use pragmatic solutions to win, sure, and what you want probably won’t get handed to you on a plate, but the time has never been better to take the next step. Meanwhile, don’t pour the tea.

Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer of MediaCom