Business Essentials: Post haste... 'We're still trying to get sexual equality sorted'

Royal Mail wants to recruit and retain more women at all levels - from the delivery room to the boardroom, finds Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

he male remains dominant in mail. With a workforce comprising 85 per cent men, Royal Mail is a company that still has to bridge the gender gap. As one of the largest employers in the UK, it wants to know not only how it can attract more women, but how it can ensure they are represented at all levels of the business.

he male remains dominant in mail. With a workforce comprising 85 per cent men, Royal Mail is a company that still has to bridge the gender gap. As one of the largest employers in the UK, it wants to know not only how it can attract more women, but how it can ensure they are represented at all levels of the business.

"Like many organisations, the further up the hierarchy you look, the fewer women there are," explains Satya Kartara, director of diversity and inclusion at Royal Mail.

The motivation to change this situation came in 2002, when current chairman Allan Leighton arrived. It was a time when Royal Mail was losing over £1m each day, morale among its employees was at rock bottom and the group's reputation in terms of service delivery was plummeting. One of the four key objectives introduced by Mr Leighton to reverse the slump in fortunes was to implement a policy of diversity and inclusion.

"One of the things Mr Leighton is very keen to do is make Royal Mail a great place to work, and we believe that having a much more representative workforce will help achieve this goal," explains Ms Kartara.

So far, the organisation has focused on two areas: flexible working and making its advertising more female friendly. "In our ads, we are clearly stating that we want more women to join us," she says. "Meanwhile, our current flexible-working initiatives include job sharing."

Royal Mail is also looking at other solutions, such as changing the way its offices prepare for deliveries. "A lot of the very early morning work is spent sorting the mail. We are exploring the idea of structuring the shifts so that a separate set of people can do the sorting to those doing the delivering. This would mean that women who want to come into work a bit later could do so, but they'd still be able to finish work relatively early and spend time with their families," says Ms Kartara.

Royal Mail is also demonstrating its commitment at the top of the organisation. "We have a diversity champions group made up of very senior managers, and they are the ones who ensure our ideas actually happen on the ground. Vanessa Leeson, our gender champion, is committed to ensuring there are no blockages to our strategies."

On the downside, the Equal Opportunities Commission recently investigated allegations of widespread sexual harassment of Royal Mail's female postal workers. However, the probe has been suspended following an agreement based on a wide-ranging action plan to stamp out harassment.

Despite such measures, Royal Mail is keen to do much more to attract, retain and promote women. "It's early days," admits Ms Kartara. "We've only been looking at this issue in a really serious way for the past nine months, and we're open to ideas about what else we can do. Ideally, we want to change things as quickly as possible."


Dianah Worman, adviser, diversity, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)

"It is clear that the challenges we face in managing diversity are not open to quick-fix solutions. Fundamental change is needed, and that includes tackling flexible working and extending such opportunities to employees at all levels.

"Flexible working is vital in helping people to manage their work/life balance, and is often a factor taken into account by successful women in considering top-level roles. Work/life provisions won't be a positive differentiator in the market for talent in the longer term, but a negative one if options are not available.

"Royal Mail is not alone in the domination of top positions by men, and CIPD research makes it clear that cultural change in the boardroom is the next thing employers will have to tackle to attract and retain more highly qualified women."

Andrew McNeilis, European commercial director, Hudson (recruitment consultancy)

"Royal Mail is probably the only UK business that can count every member of the public as a customer, and it should capitalise on that. Your customers are your potential future workforce - they need to hear about the steps you are taking to encourage diversity, and see opportunities for themselves.

"Use women in all your advertising, not just recruitment, and target women's publications to show the advantages of working at Royal Mail. Companies that ensure their workforce mirrors their customer base win on both sides.

"A cultural shift like this takes time - it's a marathon, not a sprint. But promote the commercial and social benefits that a diverse workforce has brought to the business so far. Success breeds success, and the more positive examples of diversity in practice that can be showcased to current employees, the better.

"Finally, talk to, and learn from, other organisations that have tackled diversity in their recruitment and are now reaping the rewards."

Tony Burnett, director, Performance Through Inclusion (consultancy)

"It's tempting to start with recruitment, but if you recruit women into a hostile environment, they'll leave very quickly. The key is culture, so it's essential that Royal Mail continues to create an environment in which women are treated with dignity and respect. That means having effective policies and practices that give women career and life choices.

"At the same time, the organisation should consider a thorough review of all recruitment processes to assess whether any bias exists. Further, it could help external recruitment partners to develop inclusive practices that would attract more women and create an equal platform for them to succeed.

"Finally, women will add a new dimension to the business, and Royal Mail should use that as a core part of it message.

"It is not about women for the sake of representation, it's about women because it makes business sense."