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WORK LIFE - BREAKING THROUGH

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Just 13% of council chief executives are women. Tracy Walters tells how Brent LBC is setting out to smash the glass...
Just 13% of council chief executives are women. Tracy Walters tells how Brent LBC is setting out to smash the glass ceiling

Whoever first coined the term 'glass ceiling' clearly underestimated the strength of the barrier preventing women from reaching senior positions.

Concrete or steel would probably have been a more appropriate material, given that senior positions across the public sector remain dominated by men - despite countless equal opportunity initiatives over the past 30 years or so.

Proof that local government is not immune came earlier this year, when the Equal Opportunities Commission revealed that just 13% of council chief executives are women. Their research, Sex and power: who runs Britain?, also showed that other senior positions still generally remain out of reach of women.

So what is the solution? At Brent LBC, we have taken note of the commission's comments regarding practical barriers to advancement, and have introduced a work/life balance programme that has begun to register some impressive results.

The proportion of women in senior roles has risen by 10% over the lifetime of the scheme - from 30% in 2002 to 40% this year. Still some way to go - but definite progress.

The key to this success has been to help staff achieve a proper balance between their home and work lives - particularly in terms of acknowledging caring responsibilities taken on by many women.

Traditionally the way we work assumes that people don't have caring responsibilities. This means women looking after children, or elderly relatives, often don't get the experience they need to progress to the top - because of a 'long hours' culture and general inflexibility in working patterns.

Such issues emerged as major concerns during an extensive initial staff consultation process to identify obstacles perceived by women and possible solutions. There then followed a pilot programme in social services, where staff were given an opportunity to adjust their work schedules according to their other commitments - a scheme that proved so successful that it attracted further funding from the Department for Trade & Industry. Once we found out what worked, and what didn't, we rolled the project out to the rest of the council.

Clearly, the programme is predicated on the assumption that changes in working patterns can only be introduced if these lead to an improvement in services offered to the public and there is no fall in standards.

Indeed, we are convinced of the business case for work/life balance. Feedback from staff suggested that they want small, but important, changes to their working lives. One social worker, employed in child protection, simply asked if she could occasionally take her own child to school in the morning and arrive at work after 9am.

Really simple changes like this can make a world of difference. You don't need to be a psychologist to realise that staff feel more valued if their employer understands they have important responsibilities outside work. A happier workforce is a more effective workforce, and we strongly believe our customers will benefit from our work/life balance programme.

This is not just the case as it helps us attract and retain a talented workforce, but also because we can now also deliver our services more flexibly. Our One Stop Shop service, for example, whose contact centre now operates between 8am and 8pm, has plans to open to the public on Saturday mornings thanks to this increased flexibility.

We have now distributed a work/life balance handbook to all staff - outlining options for flexible working and tips on opportunities presented by more flexible working. There is also a women's staff forum meeting quarterly to network and listen to guest speakers on subjects such as 'sex at work', which looked at the different ways men and women operate in the workplace. In addition, we recently established a well received confidential harassment advisory scheme, to help deal with claims of sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace.

The result of all this activity has been easier advancement within the council and significant new appointments such as Val Jones, Brent's new director of human resources and diversity; Valerie Jones, the head of community safety and Sue Harper, new assistant director of sport and leisure in environmental services.

We have been shortlisted for an Opportunity Now award by Business in the Community, and have received a gold rating in their annual benchmarking survey for our work on gender equality.

If there are any other councils keen to smash through that plate-glass ceiling, we would be more than happy to share the lessons of our programme.

Tracy Walters

Head of diversity, Brent LBC

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