By Claire Darley, O2’s Head of Store Transformation and Head of Women in Leadership Programme

Paying lip service to workplace diversity isn’t enough; businesses need to understand the measurable business impact of diversity and take action to make it happen.

In a modern and progressive society, it’s almost embarrassing to admit that women in top positions at leading companies - Facebook, General Motors, Yahoo! - are the exception, rather than the norm. In fact, recent research has revealed that it could take up to 25 years before women make up even a third of all global CEOs.

Perhaps more worrying is that, even when women do successfully work their way up the ladder, recent research from O2 showed that many women (74%) feel the need to change their behaviour at work to succeed professionally. Not only did these women admit to consciously changing their behaviour at work, but they are increasingly adopting so-called ‘masculine’ characteristics, such as hiding their emotions, dressing in a more masculine way and even mirroring the behaviour of male colleagues.

So what’s the answer? I believe the onus is on all businesses - big and small - to take action to increase the number of women at all levels, and to create an environment that allows women to thrive. While, of course, this is good news for women, it’s the businesses that stand to gain too. There are a number of clear areas that businesses need to focus on to get this right:

The importance of strong role models and mentoring can’t be overstated

Businesses need to do everything they can to show young women coming into our businesses today that it’s more than possible - in fact it’s preferable - to progress up the career ladder by being yourself, and by bringing your own personal views and talents to the table. That’s why we run a women’s network at O2 to support women at all levels of our business - including when they come back from maternity leave, when many women can feel out of touch with the business. The network shines a light on all the successful role models that our female employees have within the business, encouraging them to learn from one another. Our separate Women in Leadership Network supports more senior women, to help them progress to the highest rungs of the business.

Flexible working isn’t a fad

It’s a crucial component of a modern workforce - and a core part of our culture at O2. It’s not enough to pay lip service to this; businesses need to put the measures and the technology in place to make flexible working not only possible, but simple and seamless. Recent research has shown that young people prioritise flexibility as much – if not more – than salary, and we know that this is a key part of what makes us an attractive employer to both men and women. This is only set to increase in the future, following the recent regulation changes which have given all employees the right to request flexible working, and the upcoming shared parental leave legislation. We’ve seen genuine business benefits as a result of flexible working, with employees telling us their productivity, efficiency and well-being has increased dramatically.

We can’t just cater for the current workforce

If we are to create meaningful and long-lasting change and avoid missing out on the potential of the next generation, businesses need to encourage and nurture the skills of young women. This is especially true for the tech sector. We have a huge responsibility to shed our outdated reputation of a ‘boy’s club’ and to ensure that girls - right from primary school - understand all the fantastic opportunities offered by tech. There are plenty of simple ways to achieve this, whether it’s going into schools and talking to girls about careers in digital, or offering quality apprenticeship programmes and mentoring schemes. One of O2’s own graduates recently launched a fantastic initiative designed to get girls as young as 10 into coding. This has been a great success already, with some of the young girls involved signing up for weekly coding classes as a result. These young people are the future of our workforce, so we need to start nurturing them now.

Workplace diversity isn’t just morally right; it makes complete business sense. We believe that if we’re to best serve our 23 million customers around the UK, we need to understand what motivates them and those around them. It’s therefore vital that our workforce mirrors the diversity of our customer base. After all, how are businesses meant to understand their customers if their workforce is made up of white middle aged men?

But it’s not enough just to talk about it. If British businesses are to reap the benefits of a truly diverse workforce - both now, and in the future - they need to take action to create a strong pipeline of talent, encouraging young women into the business and nurturing and supporting them at every stage of their career. Hopefully then, we’ll finally be able to stop talking about the ‘gender issue’ and start focusing on building better businesses, both for our employees and our customers.