Reducing labour pains

by Mark Sherfield, BDO

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05 Mar 2014

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INCLUSION IS EVERYONE'S BUSINESS. Yet, in our market, the number of women in senior positions remains low and gender balance is something we must all address.

Which is why BDO has launched its new approach to maternity this week. Having family-friendly policies isn't the only way to tackle senior gender balance but it is a consideration in how firms retain an extraordinary amount of talent. Some 68% of working parents admitted to researchers from Talking Talent that ‘maternity transition' was the critical pinch point in their careers when they felt they stopped progressing up the ladder. Decisions around the timing of maternity leave and flexible working on return can add to stress and affect the decision to return to work or continue on the same career path.

Firms need to appreciate the experience of those undergoing the transition of becoming a parent; it's a fundamental transformation in a person's life. Improving the experience of an expectant or new mother or father at work is a critical part of the inclusion agenda for individual firms, the accountancy profession and society at large.

First steps

Of the 73,000 chartered accountants employed full-time in the UK, 32,000 are female, according to Randstad figures published in February 2014. This means our industry has a responsibility as significant employers to play its part and ensure cultures are based on mutual support and respect. More specifically for BDO, achieving our strategy of leading in the mid-market isn't just about being number one AIM auditor or having the largest mid-market international network - it's also about leading the way in how we care for our people.

In response, one of our audit partners, Anna Draper, ran a series of focus groups with men and women across the firm - in every region and at every level - to listen to their experiences as they transitioned into parenthood and tackled the challenge of balancing family and working life.

Three themes became clear:

• Communication: it's crucial not to lose communication during maternity leave. Whether it's a simple ‘hello', an update on what's happening across the firm, or invitations to team days out, regular communication is important in terms of how mothers think about their place in the company

• ‘Coming back' culture: an understanding of the difference between life before and life after. Some people may want minimal change; others may need wholesale transformation. Seemingly small things, such as moving the day you hold your weekly team meeting or ensuring the person returning to work doesn't automatically get the ‘end' desk, can really matter. A flexible and intelligent way of working is the future

• Confidence: our focus groups found that the ultimate barrier to senior progression is ‘confidence', and further research from talent management agency, SHL, suggests women are motivated by a constructive working atmosphere and receiving recognition. This means that ensuring we encourage senior females to remain in the firm isn't just about getting the maternity package right, it's about encouraging long-term behaviours.

The full package

These insights tell us that firms need to tackle the way they approach maternity - not just the pay packet. Firms need to consider the package of measures that create the ‘maternity experience' and look beyond simple remuneration. For example:

1. Local maternity co-ordinators: someone in the office who will help to facilitate a consistent high quality contact through the journey to becoming a working parent
2. Web-based portal: with communication so important, an online tool full of advice, support and guidance, with plenty of easy-to-digest video content, can help working mothers and fathers cope with each stage of their transition
3. Coaching: access to independent coaches for women pre-, during and post-maternity leave can help them to re-integrate, but also plan their longer-term approach to working life. Coaches should also be available for managers to help support women through maternity in both practical and emotionally intelligent ways
4. Mentors and buddies: formal and informal opportunities for individuals to talk closely with someone who has been through similar processes or experiences before
5. Financial package: needs to be both competitive and designed with the individual in mind, a maternity pay structure should support mothers when they need it the most.

Balancing act

At BDO, we saw a possibility for a change in our approach, culture and policy to make the interaction between work and home life easier and to assist in the retention of our best people. This led to a new set of measures - tackling all five areas above - which we've introduced this month. We believe that if we can obtain an 85% retention rate among mothers returning to work, the firm will make a positive ROI.

Maternity and paternity care is just one area in which responsible businesses need to positively and proactively support individuals. Having the right policies in place for anyone requiring flexible working or additional benefits - whether for a mother, father, carer or any other needs - can help to unlock potential and maintain morale, motivation and strong performances. Delivering exceptional service to clients relies on employing talented, free-thinking people with imagination and initiative - and that doesn't come in one mould.

If companies wish to attract and retain the best people, they need to consider whether they operate a truly inclusive nature that will encourage a long-term and sustainable improvement in the number of women in accountancy holding ever more senior positions.

Mark Sherfield is chief operating officer of BD

International Women's Day is on 8 March - #IWD2014

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