Carolyn Fairbairn on International Women's Day

8 March 2018

CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn draws on her personal experience to join the call to “Press for Progress”

“It’s a fantastic time to be a young woman coming into the workplace,” says CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn. “I’ve got two daughters in their twenties, and they are full of optimism. They don’t see barriers in their way.”

She’s noticed the difference in levels of awareness and commitment to gender equality, even over the past two or three years. But her own optimism is tempered.

“We’re just not moving fast enough,” she says, pointing to the pitiful statistic that only 4 per cent of the FTSE 350 have women CEOs.

“We should be trying to change that. It starts right back at the beginning. It starts in our schools. It’s then about how companies recruit, and how they appraise their staff. And every step of the way, we should be looking for progress.”

There are too many excuses... It's very easy to put other priorities first

“There are too many excuses,” she adds. Having been on the board of an engineering firm, she recognises how tough it is to find the women engineers to recruit, let alone to appoint to senior management positions – and she believes initiatives encouraging more girls to take up science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) will make a difference over the long term. But it doesn’t mean she didn’t challenge the company about it. Regularly.

“It’s very easy to put other priorities first. Our firms are competing in an environment where Brexit is creating a lot of uncertainty. The board agenda and the executive committee agenda can always have other things at the top of the list. That’s the risk.”

So what’s the answer? Targets, Fairbairn says – and preferably public ones.

“We’ve seen how effective it has been to have a target for women on boards. We’ve blown through the 25 per cent. Seven years ago, it was half that. That target has been embraced and it has sparked a little competition between firms. And that’s no bad thing.”

The new target on the block could well be gender pay gap reporting. 60 per cent of CBI members now say that they are going to do something as a result of its introduction. “It just shows the power of transparency,” she says, adding that businesses need to be given until the deadline to get their report right.

“And I’m not saying that every company should have the same target at all, but measurement helps – and making targets public would demonstrate real commitment. No one likes missing targets.”

Challenge the day-to-day

Fairbairn refers to many of the techniques firms can use to improve fairness at work as “real basics”. The difficulty comes with changing habits and moving away from the familiar.

Yes, employers are talking much more about wanting to create supportive work environments, where everyone can feel they can be themselves and valued for who they are (and gender is just one part of that picture). But to really accelerate the speed of change, she calls for businesses to challenge themselves every step of the way.

“It’s about asking the question: can you do something differently? And not tolerating unfairness. Calling it out. Not just letting things pass because we’re too busy.

“It’s challenging the day to day, the all-male shortlist, the people around the table, the promotional pay round… Because it’s thousands of small things. The more I live with this, the more I realise there is no silver bullet.”

Those are tough years when you've got children who are under 12 – and I had three under the age of six

But she also reflects on her own experience as a mother in the workplace, and adds that it’s an area where far more can be done.  

“I left consulting when I had my second daughter because I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly stay in a client-facing role. I just felt I couldn’t cope.”

“Those are tough years when you’ve got children who are under 12 – and I had three under the age of six,” she continues. “But talk to a lot of women who are trying to continue working with a family, and stick with their careers, and it’s the backing of a CEO or a line manager, who personally recognise the challenge, that makes the difference.”

“It happened to me at the BBC. I worked for someone who used to sit down and ask me how I was finding it, and who discouraged me from going up to a four-day week because he thought I’d end up doing five days’ work but only get paid for four. I never felt under the kind of pressure that leads to presenteeism. I felt I had his backing to make it work.”

The importance of flexibility  

She’d love to see more men take parental leave – and she believes more flexibility should be “hard-wired into jobs so that asking for it isn’t perceived as a favour”, for men or for women. But she admits both will take a while to change.

“But we can make sure that when women come back from maternity leave, there isn’t an assumption that they want an easier job.”

Too much of the social side of business is happening in clubby atmospheres which are not friendly to family life

Fairbairn praises initiatives such as the Timewise Power 50, which highlights what can be achieved by men and women working in part-time roles. But she also argues more could be done to keep the social side of business within office hours – opting for breakfasts, lunches, or early evening events, rather than dinners.

“Too much of it is happening in clubby atmospheres which is not friendly to family life. And I just know from my executive career that the amount of connections and friendships you make in business really matter as you are taking on more and more responsibility, getting more exposed and taking more personal risk.”

The business case

More broadly, Fairbairn is also clear on the business case for getting diversity and inclusion right. “It’s fundamental to business performance,” she says.

But more than that, as employment is people’s main connection with business, she argues that ensuring employees are engaged and involved in inclusive, diverse environments “is also fundamental to the trust and reputation of business”.

“It’s why it’s so important to press for progress.”

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