Why inclusivity needs to be at the heart of employment provisions, recruitment practices and workplace cultures if women are to have a level playing field – Naomi Ilagoswa

  • Monday, March 7, 2022
  • Posted By The Growth Company

Today is International Women’s Day, a day where the world comes together to not only celebrate the fantastic achievements of women, but to campaign for a gender equality and an inclusive society that’s free from discrimination.

The theme of International Women’s Day this year is #BreakTheBias, and I believe we should all be doing whatever we can to ensure that women – whatever their age, race, sexuality or background – are not at a disadvantage.

One area which I’m particularly passionate about is workplace diversity and inclusivity. All too often, employers – and employment support programmes – are failing to meet the needs of some of the most disadvantaged groups of women across the UK.

As Head of External Partnerships and Strategic Projects at the Growth Company, I’ve seen contracts grow and change over the years, yet I feel like there’s still some way to go before the scope of these programmes is broad enough to ensure that women from all walks of life have equal opportunities to develop their careers – or to even find sustainable work in the first place.

Breaking down the barriers

Here at GC, our vision is for a society where economic growth and prosperity is inclusive, sustainable and leaves no person or community behind.

One of our key areas of service delivery is our employment provision. We deliver a wide range of programmes across the North of England, ranging from really large, light-touch programmes like National Careers Service - who have played a key part in helping women to look at their transferrable skills and change careers during the pandemic – through to programmes that focus more on health conditions and disabilities.

For example, the Working Well (Work and Health) Programme in Greater Manchester, and the Intensive Personalised Employment Support (IPES) programme across the North West are particularly helpful for women that might need holistic support. Whilst employment might be the end goal, these initiatives help to remove the blockers that might have stopped them in the past (or which might feel like too big a hurdle to jump over by themselves). This could be factors such as housing, relationships, bereavement, childcare and physical or mental ill-health. On these programmes, we have a team of key workers who look at individuals on a very bespoke basis, offering a package of support to help them overcome these barriers and make work a realistic outcome for them.

Specialist support for women who are going through the justice system

The Growth Company is also the prime contractor involved in the delivery of various ‘activity hubs’ across Yorkshire on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. The Hubs act as a safe space for people on probation to meet new people, develop their soft skills and be signposted to specialist help and support.

What we’ve always recognised is that women who are on probation need a unique offer away from individuals who identify as men. They may come from a background where they have experienced domestic abuse or violence at the hands of a man, so we need to be very mindful of potential trauma triggers.

Our teams in Yorkshire have developed a very female-focused service designed to empower women, build their confidence and address any holistic barriers which they might be facing.

One thing which I think is crucial is that the hubs bring essential services to women, rather than asking them to go out to places that they might struggle – or feel uncomfortable – to go to. For example, one of the hubs has recently delivered a health and beauty course on-site, which was really successful. It’s all about bringing the provision to the women, rather than requiring them to go out and face the world whilst they’re regaining their trust back in society and learning to reintegrate back into their local communities. The key is to make their transition as easy as possible and show that they’re supported every step of the way, no matter how long it takes them to get their confidence and trust levels back up.

Are women really at a disadvantage?

I would absolutely say that women remain at a disadvantage. Statistically, you don’t fare as well in the workplace being a woman and sadly, I think that’s only exasperated if you’re a Black or Asian woman. Obviously, there’s sexism (which is still rife), but then when you add racism into the mix, it makes it so much harder for women of colour to feel accepted, supported and able to thrive.

If you’re also looking at other disadvantages that women face, in most cases they tend to be the main caregivers in family situations, so they need to shoulder that burden. There were more males made redundant from full-time positions during the pandemic than females, however those statistics are skewed when you consider that many women are actually in part-time roles because full-time work simply isn’t an option for them, due to caring responsibilities and other forces at play.

We work closely with external providers to encourage them to flex the timings of their provisions, giving women who have caring responsibilities a better chance of being able to attend. This is hugely beneficial to women who have to look after children or family members, or who might be returning to the labour market after having to take time out to carry our caring duties, or due to a period of ill health.

I’m from a lone parent family. It’s just me and my mum, and my mum worked for most of my childhood. As a woman who has been fortunate enough to have numerous privileges, I feel it’s my responsibility to help raise other women up who haven’t been as lucky as I have. That’s one of the many reasons why I’m so passionate about what I do, and the impact the Growth Company has in supporting women from some of the hardest-to-reach communities into the workplace.

Do existing employment contracts do enough to support women from the most disadvantaged groups?

During my 13+ years of working in the employment space, I’ve seen first-hand how nationally and locally delivered employment programmes and services have changed over time. Whilst schemes like the ones I’ve talked about are fantastic and make me proud to come to work every day, I still don’t think programmes have innovated enough to support women specifically.

Employment programmes often focus on priority groups – such as lone parents or Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals. But what is far less common is highly targeted provisions that would just look at support for women, or women of a particular ethnicity.

Something we’re trying to do at the moment is looking at how we can re-shape our delivery within those wider, all-encompassing contracts. We’re looking at how we can adapt our offer so it better meets the needs of specific groups – be that Black women, women with certain health conditions or single mums. That’s what we want to consider going forward.

I was recently appointed to the Board of Directors at Employment Related Services Association (ERSA). Part of my role there will involve helping to influence policy and ensuring that future programmes are meeting the needs of all demographics. We’re looking at the Shared Prosperity Fund coming on board, and the Levelling Up Fund – could those funds be placed to have more local provision that supports the requirements of disadvantaged groups, and genuinely helps to create a level playing field? I would like to see that in the future because it’s not – and shouldn’t be – a ‘one size fits all' approach.

Fostering an inclusive workforce

It’s essential that employers have an inclusive culture, both in their recruitment processes and their workforce.

They need to make sure that their policies are family-friendly, and they should also consider offering mentoring to women from disadvantaged groups – such as black women and disabled women. Implementing a mentoring programme shows that they’re committed to empowering people who naturally face more barriers in society and have more hurdles to overcome. It shows they’re walking the walk, as well as talking the talk – which is the most important thing.

Menopause is another factor that I strongly feel needs to be considered in employment support provisions, and in the workplace. There are a lot of statistics out there that show how many women leave work – or consider leaving – due to menopause and the lack of support from their employer to help them navigate their way through this difficult time in their lives. In fact, a study by Benenden Health found that almost a quarter of women (23%) who felt ill as a result of menopause have left jobs – and it's high time for employers to recognise the serious impact it can have on their female staff.  

I suspect a lot of over-50s in our cohort might have left the workplace because of that, and I think it’s the Growth Company’s responsibility to support other employers that we work with to recognise this challenge. Businesses could, potentially, be losing a lot of talented women so it’s a very important thing to consider. Organisations should look at changes that can be implemented to support women who are going through menopause.

As I round off this piece, I would encourage businesses to take time this International Women’s Day to step back and reflect on what they could do better to make their recruitment strategies and workplace culture more inclusive and supportive for women – particularly females who face more complex barriers than the average person which prevent them from progressing and fulfilling their true potential. Let’s all take steps to #BreakTheBias together.

To find out more about GC Employment’s various services and employment programmes, visit their website here.