LIZ McAREAVEY

For weeks now, the news agenda has been dominated by stories of the sexual harassment of women – in particular in the high-profile worlds of showbusiness and politics.

We all understand that the issue is not one that is restricted only to these fairly narrow areas.

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Women in our workplaces, sadly, do know that this does go on in offices, factories and every other kind of workplace around the UK on a daily basis. Only last year, a major survey conducted by the TUC found that 52% of women had experienced unwanted behaviour – including the kind of advances that would constitute sexual assault – in the workplace. Sadly, 80% did not report the incidents for fear they would not be taken seriously, or that their prospects would be damaged.

Not only is this kind of behaviour reprehensible, it is plain bad business. Company after company declares that its greatest challenge is recruiting and nurturing talented people. Yet in the UK, not only do we find half the population subjected to unacceptable and damaging behaviour, we also find that they are hugely under-represented in senior roles.

A global survey by Grant Thornton earlier this year found that the number of women in senior business roles in the UK had dropped – by 2% in a year – to just 19%. Shockingly, despite all of the efforts and noise around this issue, that is similar to levels reported a decade ago, and the UK is the second-worst performing country in Europe in this regard, and the fifth worst in the world.

This is the case in spite of the fact that the evidence is mounting that having women in senior positions, and in particular at board levels, creates many positive benefits. The British Chambers of Commerce maintains more women on boards leads to better innovation, and other organisations have said it leads to improved sales revenues and margins, and increased satisfaction and productivity. McKinsey reports that gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national median.

There’s no longer any doubt. Boardroom equality and fairness equals improves business performance. One of the women who has made it to a senior level – Sheila Penrose who Chairs the Board at property consultancy giant Jones Lang LaSalle – said it perfectly. “Companies that overlook half of the world’s population overlook half of the world’s talent.”

Few women, I suspect, have entirely escaped some form of unacceptable behaviour throughout their career, myself included. Whether this is harassment, gender discrimination, disrespect, or exclusion the recent spotlight on inappropriate behaviour will make us all much more aware of what needs to change to create a more equal work environment.

Business organisatons such as the Chambers of Commerce need to be at the forefront of tackling the drive to improve our talent pool in all ways, including tackling gender equality, through our training and responsible business initiatives and encouraging more young women to consider science and technology as careers.

This way lies the necessary change of culture that will bring fairness, equality, and much more sustainable business success.

Liz McAreavey is chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce.