28/09/2012 07:35 BST | Updated 27/11/2012 05:12 GMT

Women at the Top - What Can SMEs do to Make Sure They Keep Women on Board?

Coming from a family where my mum has always the breadwinner, it is perhaps not surprising that I automatically see the role of women in the workplace as critical. I cringe in horror that she was once told she couldn't make a purchase without my Dad's authority and yet, in living my own life (including a stint in Corporate!) I really did think things had changed.

That is, until I started my own business and all of a sudden I was faced with a candidate pool of multi-skilled, talented, exceptional workers who were being forced to leave their enjoyable and hard won careers, simply because they had one or more children. Indeed, as I contemplate starting a family, I have realised what sorts of barriers even I might encounter, from clients being unhappy that I am not steering the ship personally for a few months to how on earth will I bring order to chaos!

Since I became aware of the "glass ceiling" about 11 years ago, the lack of women at board level seems to have been endlessly discussed. I was, however, shocked to discover in the recent BBC documentary 'Women at the Top' with Hilary Devey how little has actually been done to assist women to progress further.

The most poignant part for me was the 'human triangle' that showed the 'mass exodus' of women from the workplace as they move up the chain of management. Even at middle management level it was shocking to see what impact it had on the makeup of the workforce - especially in the light of hard evidence that gender balanced teams perform better financially and make for more innovative, sustainable organisations!

Hilary is a great example of a woman who has made it in a man's world but I didn't agree with everything she said about it being up to women to have the confidence to stand up and be counted. Lack of confidence can be part of the issue but there are many other things at play and it's up to everyone to make sure they are creating a working environment and culture where women can thrive, grow and progress.

There are some good examples of what big businesses can do and (in the case of P&G and others) are doing. But what can SME employers do to make sure they don't let women go or hit a glass ceiling early on?

The benefits of work life balance

The culture of long working hours in the UK has made many of us into 'busy fools' who are simply trying to prove our worth in a competitive workplace by being 'present' for longer. But work life balance makes your employees more rounded, interesting and diverse - which at my company HR180 is great for our clients and great for business.

Work life balance needs to be encouraged (and not frowned upon) from the top with the emphasis on the fact that it should make people more productive, motivated and efficient during working hours.

Flexible working as a culture - not just an initiative

A flexible working culture is much easier for SMEs to create because people tend to be less pigeon-holed in roles and their working location tends to be much less important. When I started my business from home, I attracted the best talent by being able to offer what big employers couldn't - complete flexibility. This meant that I could keep overheads low and invest money back into growing the business.

But flexible working shouldn't just be an initiative aimed at helping some people fit childcare commitments around their work. That just isolates people and causes inequality and lack of trust. Flexible working should be a culture and something that is available to all, whether they want to use it to undertake further study, pursue a hobby or spend time with their families at sports days etc.

Again, the business case is that if people are given the flexibility to work around other commitments they will be more engaged, focused and committed to their work.

A supportive - rather than competitive - ethos

Traditionally, employers have believed that an ethos of competitiveness improves employee motivation and business performance. However, we have seen that a supportive working environment is much better for productivity, efficiency and growth.

By understanding the individual needs of staff - eg the fact they may need to drop everything in an emergency situation to take care of sick children or elderly relatives - and making sure that their colleagues can pick up their work and support them where needed, you can ensure that people's career progression isn't held back by a temporary difficult situation at home. We even occasionally allow staff to bring their kids into the office and give them toys to play with, which lifts everyone's spirits!

Keeping working mothers involved

The reality of maternity leave is that women are forced to exit the business - in our business everything changes in just a week so a few weeks or more can seem a lifetime. It's important to find ways of keeping everyone - including those working part time or on maternity leave - involved in important business decisions and able to have an influence over things so that they don't feel 'redundant' or 'behind the times'. This is easier for SMEs than large organisations where staff at all levels tend to have more autonomy anyway.

Articulating your values

It is all very well having a strong set of values but if everyone in the organisation isn't bought into them, then you can't change the culture. Develop your values in consultation with staff and then constantly remind them of what they should live and breathe every day in line with your business goals and vision. Everyone needs to see what their role is in achieving them and why the working environment and culture they create is an important part of that.

SMEs have a real opportunity to lead the way on getting women to the top because we are good at making things happen (instead of just talking about them!) How are you going to make a difference today?