Guest Blog from Heidi Stewart, BHSF Group CEO.

BHSF has a history that can be traced back to a charity started in 1873, The Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund. We were founded by an eminent Birmingham surgeon, Joseph Sampson Gamgee, to encourage payroll contributions to support local hospitals (a practice which continued until the advent of the NHS in 1948) and the running of convalescence homes after the war.

Back in 1873, the view of a woman’s place in society was sharply traditional. A woman’s sphere of influence was seen to be the home and raising children. They were seen as physically, mentally, emotionally and morally inferior to men and were kept away from politics and public life. They could not stand as candidates for parliament and it was felt that women could not be trusted to vote rationally, so were still not allowed to vote.

Women did not just lack political equality during this time; they had few legal rights, especially once married: all possessions became her husband’s. Domestic abuse was commonplace, legal and widely seen as acceptable. Of positive note however in our founding year, was the 1873 Infant Custody Act which increased women’s rights over children including the possibility of sole custody in the case of divorce, with custody being determined by the needs of the child rather than the rights of either parent.

150 years ago, a women’s workplace was home, for example in piecework, and often also outside of the home in textiles and clothing factories and workshops, or in domestic service for wealthy households. Many women of this era were also employed in what was known as the “sweated industries”- small industries like nail making, matchstick making, and shoe stitching, where the hours were long, and the pay was extremely low – and significantly lower than their male counterparts. For a long time, women were also largely excluded from trade unions. This combination made women an attractive prospect for Victorian employers.

When I started my career there were so few positive female role models in leadership and I am grateful that my daughter’s generation can point to multiple examples.

The evolution of women’s workplace equality has certainly been complex over the subsequent 150 years thanks to the impact of two world wars, anti-discrimination legislation and feminist activism. A vast set of factors have impacted on a women’s status in the workforce such as the size and shape of the family and household, ideologies of feminism and sexual politics, as well as class, age and ethnicity. Twenty-first century female presence in senior-level professional and managerial posts is thankfully considerable and balancing a successful career with motherhood is not only possible but something many women excel at. That I’m writing this today as the first female chief executive of BHSF makes me immensely proud. When I started my career there were so few positive female role models in leadership and I am grateful that my daughter’s generation can point to multiple examples.

The women of 2023 are not prepared to sacrifice their wellbeing to advance and want to work for companies that prioritise flexibility, employee wellbeing, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

But the last few years have also seen something of a yoyo effect on workplace equity. During the pandemic momentum was gained for working women thanks to hybrid working, with companies having conversations around a flexible workplace that simply weren’t there before. But threats to true equity remain. The gender pay gap widens once a woman becomes a mum. And older women take a financial hit for balancing work alongside caring for older relatives as well as children and grandchildren, says the TUC. Women often face the hidden ‘carer tax’ that sees them disadvantaged, having to work shorter hours to accommodate caring needs.

According to Lean In and McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace many women experience microaggressions that undermine their authority. The report found that colleagues are more likely to question a female leader’s judgement or suitability for her role, and also stated that women reported personal characteristics, such as being a parent, have played a part in them being passed over for promotion. In other words, the presence of women in an organisation – even at senior levels – doesn’t mean a company has achieved fairness.

For every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level positions to management roles, only 87 women are promoted, sadly this is even lower for women of colour. According to the same report, we’re also in the midst of a ‘great break up’ – a phenomenon that’s causing female leaders to leave their jobs at the highest rate ever witnessed. Others refer to us being in the depths of a ‘she-cession” with one in three women looking to downshift their careers or leave the workforce entirely, citing burnout and disenfranchisement.

As I reflect today on International Women’s Day, I ask what needs to be done to ensure that the pace of progress for women’s rights keeps tempo so that the workplace is an inclusive and sustainable place for all women?

For me it is about building the right culture. This is how we can today ensure women’s careers truly thrive.

  • The BHSF of 2023 has a clear and effective hybrid working policy. This helps us retain women for the long term and helps attract a strong pipeline of young women.
  • We know that whilst the women of 2023 are highly ambitious, they are not prepared to sacrifice their wellbeing to advance and want to work for companies that prioritise flexibility, employee wellbeing, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • In the last twelve months we took part in the ENEI TIDE self-assessment evaluation and benchmarking tool. It measures an organisation’s approach and progress on diversity and inclusion (D&I). We achieved a Bronze Award which is rarely given during an organisation’s first assessment.
  • Additionally, we have enhanced our maternity, paternity and adoption leave to ensure all colleagues can take the time they wanted to adjust to a new family member.
  • Progressive organisations consider not just what people, but what women specifically need in terms of motivation, encouragement and confidence building. At BHSF we have a dedicated People Support team offering over 100 courses both virtually and physically on a wide range of topics from management skills to personal health and wellbeing. We also have our own employed Health Coach who provides personal one to one support on all health-related matters, from staying physically active to mindfulness and women’s health.
  • Implementing targeted – and accessible – mechanisms such as health apps and internal support groups are a highly effective way of providing help on topics such as fertility, parenting and the menopause.
  • Talk to women in your organisation—at all levels—and ask them questions. Find out what’s working and what’s not in terms of career growth, flexibility and culture. When women are leaving, find out why.

We have been a business for good ever since 1873, and look forward to supporting all individuals, regardless of how they identify or their personal circumstances, in our workplace and in wider society throughout 2023 and far beyond.