A gender-balanced workforce – how?

By Joe O'Neill, Business in the Community Board Member and Chief Executive, Belfast Harbour Commissioners

Diversity in the workplace deeply enriches the culture and output of an organisation, with each employee bringing their own unique talents, background, beliefs and perspective to the team.

‘A Port for Everyone’ – A Spotlight on Gender Equality in traditional industries

Diverse teams help to generate diverse and innovative thinking, critical in the modern business context.

As traditional, heavy engineering business industries like the port industry respond to innovation and growth, it is imperative that we improve our diversity footprint. Gender is clearly one aspect of this and encouraging women to consider roles within the previously male dominated port industry is a priority not just at Belfast Harbour, but at ports right across the globe.

A ‘Women in Maritime’ taskforce is just one industry initiative that is aimed at increasing female employment in marine industries.

Pioneered by Maritime UK, the representative body for the shipping, port and leisure marine industries, the taskforce is supporting ports in their efforts to raise female awareness of potential workplace opportunities within the industry.

The port sector is a major driver of the UK economy, helping support c.1 million jobs and contributing c.£40bn to UK GDP. In many sectors and disciplines women are under-represented and the ‘Women in Maritime’ Taskforce is working hard to help address that.

Here at Belfast Harbour, our footprint expands well beyond the Port, and in both Port Operations and our wider estate portfolio, our female employees continue to thrive in traditionally male dominated roles.

At Belfast Harbour women play key roles across the board, including technical fields such as Maintenance Technicians or the Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) team, which manages shipping movements in the Port. Half of the VTS roles are now performed by women and in other ‘traditional’ roles a growing number are female, eg, over 25% of Belfast Harbour Police constables.

For our part diversity and inclusion is a core and consistent agenda item at our Boardroom table and our focus on gender equality in the workplace is both visible and recognised. I was delighted that Belfast Harbour achieved a Northern Ireland Gender Diversity Charter Mark to mark our promotion of diversity, equality of opportunity and good relations among its employees. The charter also provides a framework that has helped us as an organisation to identify barriers facing women that impact their career progression.

We have worked hard to achieve this by creating a culture which supports the progress and development of people with talent and ambition, no matter their background or gender.

Belfast Harbour is home to many of the City’s best-known public spaces from Titanic Quarter to City Quays and Holywood Exchange and our commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workplace is core to our internal culture. We are committed to developing an iconic waterfront for the city which will be a stand-out destination to live, work, play and invest in and ensuring we have a culture with equality of opportunity in the workplace sits at the heart of our ambition.

As the title of our long-term strategy suggests, ‘A Vision to 2035: A Port for Everyone’ we want Belfast Harbour to be a welcoming place for all, be that our employees or the millions who visit us every year.

Driving the gender agenda in your business – who can help?

Achieving a truly gender-balanced workforce means employers must recruit and progress the best talent – irrespective of gender. The commercial imperative for realising women’s potential in the workplace is clear: gender equality enhances employee engagement, boosts productivity, meets the diverse needs of customers and suppliers, and improves brand reputation.

In Northern Ireland, the shift in top level power in government from men to women has been quite significant in recent years, but this is not something that plays out across other senior level positions across government. In fact, women account for around a third of our Councillors, MPs and MLAs. That being said, across the civil service as a whole, the gender split is 50:50. In overall employment, the gender balance is fairly even too, but significantly, more than 80% of all part-time workers are women. One area of note is the ratio of women in third sector roles – almost 75% of the senior roles are held by women; a statistic replicated across the overall third sector workforce.

But ‘times they are a changing’ and, along with the important issue of gender, employers across Northern Ireland are working hard to ensure they are doing their very best for their people, the planet and the places in which they operate. Giving due attention to the issues that face both men and women in the workplace is key to the success of any business.

Business in the Community, the responsible business network, exists to inspire and challenge business to be a force for good in society.

Research carried out within the past two years and published in Equal Lives, Parenthood and Caring in the Workplace, gathered data from more than 10,000 respondent across the UK, both men and women. It revealed that while attitudes towards caring amongst both men and women have shifted – both being very similar, behaviours often haven’t. This lack of flexibility is preventing employees from reaching their full potential both at home and at work. Businesses that can create more family-friendly environments, supported by a flexible working culture, will better attract, engage and retain their talent. It is a balancing act, but one employers can be supported to achieve.

One strand of Business in the Community’s work focuses on supporting employers to create resilient and inclusive workplaces where people are supported to be the best they can be. The organisation provides companies with the support and tools to understand and deal with mental and physical health issues in a workplace setting, and helps businesses improve their understanding of diversity and inclusion issues through targeted support, enabling them to embrace the value all employees bring to work. Two of these areas of focus are mental health and the menopause; subjects that were fairly taboo just a few years ago, but ones that, if addressed well, can help both employers and employees.

Any organisation – large or small, and from anywhere in Northern Ireland – can avail of support through a variety of toolkits and one-to-one support. I would encourage you to get in touch.

For more information, please email Denise Cranston, call (028) 9046 0606, or visit www.bitcni.org.uk