Internal Communications

Vodafone Group wants to be employer of choice for women

Vodafone Group employees who are the victims of domestic abuse will now receive ten additional days’ paid ‘safe leave’ in a ground-breaking scheme unveiled by the mobile phone operator as the latest step in its stated ambition to become the world’s leading employer of women by 2025.

The scheme, which launched on International Women’s Day, will allow affected employees time to seek professional counselling, to attend police interviews or court appearances, find new accommodation or even comfort children without worrying about the financial consequences.

Vodafone will also offer specialist support services to victims. The initiative, which is being rolled out across all 25 countries in which Vodafone operates, follows the successful launch of pilot schemes in Australia in 2015 and two years later in New Zealand, where it preceded the introduction of government legislation by a year.

Karina Govindji, head of diversity and inclusion at Vodafone Group, explains: ‘Domestic violence is an area that our Vodafone Foundation has been focused on for over ten years, through using our technology to help those affected, particularly women, to be safer, but, while our Foundation had a strong basis and understanding of the issues, globally we had not been doing anything to support all women.’

In an effort to understand the scale and complexity of the issue, Vodafone Group commissioned polling company Opinium to survey almost 4,700 workers across nine countries – UK, Germany, Ireland, Turkey, South Africa, Kenya, India, Italy, and Spain – in which it operates.

Govindji adds: ‘We knew research about domestic violence and abuse from the UN and other sources was quite sobering, but we wanted to reconfirm that, particularly in regard to the working population. Our research highlighted that one in three working women at all levels had been impacted by domestic violence and abuse, and one in six men. Overall then, one in three in the workforce in their working career has been affected by this issue.’

Opinium’s work also revealed that 67 per cent of those who had experienced domestic violence believed it had impacted their careers while 20 per cent took time off as a result. One in ten quit their jobs. One in four incidents of abuse were described as finance-related, where an abusive partner controlled resources or held back their victims by hiding travel cards or car keys, which either meant they could not get to work or arrived late. These subtle behaviours all serve to impact financial independence.

‘If you consider that this relates to one in three women, then it is yet another issue standing in the way of women having full careers. We want to be the best employer for women, we have led ground-breaking policies around maternity leave and bringing women back to work, but it really struck us that this is a real issue we need to tackle societally. This makes us the first company globally to put in place an employee policy,’ says Govindji.

‘[Our research found] that when people did share in the workplace, their situation improved, but not enough felt comfortable to do so. The working environment is not conducive to people sharing yet, because of the situation they are facing at home, these victims of domestic violence feel safer at work. It does place an emphasis on workplaces to create an environment of safety where employees can openly talk about what is going on, and then know that they will be supported.’

67 per cent of those who had experienced domestic violence believed it had impacted their careers while 20 per cent took time off as a result

But Vodafone is also aware that many people suffering domestic abuse are either too ashamed or embarrassed to admit they are victims, while some individuals are not even aware that they are being manipulated. The company hopes that its Bright Sky app, which launched three years ago in the UK but is now being rolled out internationally, may help.

Bright Sky provides victims of domestic abuse with vital information, such as details of their nearest support centre, practical steps to leave a violent partner, the ability to record incidents to a journal that is uploaded to the cloud and a questionnaire to test the safety of a relationship.

There are also resources for those concerned about relatives or friends, offering guidance on how to show support or even broach the issue.

Setting up in covert mode disguises Bright Sky as a weather app if a victim’s partner were to check the phone. ‘There is a diagnosis tool in the Bright Sky app that friends and families can use if they see or hear a behaviour that they are not sure constitutes an abusive relationship,’ adds Govindji.

‘We are trying to help with awareness. It is also available for managers who, if they pick up signs, can very gently direct colleagues towards the app.’

Vodafone has embarked on a training programme for colleagues in human resources to help them to identify and support victims in the workplace, which is currently cascading through the group. ‘This is such a sensitive subject, and we want to get it right, and make sure that the education of managers and HR is done right. But we have an external employee assistance programme, a helpline that is used for several issues, and we have made sure that our provider is fully equipped to deal with domestic violence and abuse. It is critical that that external resource is available immediately,’ says Govindji.

‘We have also created a comprehensive toolkit which explains and underlines what domestic abuse is, how to recognise the signs, how to respond and how to refer colleagues to support programmes.’

Govindji concedes that just a handful of victims have come forward, including eight in New Zealand since the scheme’s launch there in 2017, but adds: ‘The reality is that we need to raise awareness so that other companies will follow. This is clearly not a problem that Vodafone can tackle alone. There is a real call to action. We have got the research. We have directly gone out to Footsie and other companies to share the research to encourage them to contact us if they want any other information.’

Its toolkit is also available to other companies ‘so they don’t have to start from scratch’. Vodafone Group has a strong track record supporting gender equality. Its former chief executive Vittorio Colao was instrumental to driving the agenda forward following his appointment in 2008 – a strategy his successor Nick Read similarly endorses – and was one of ten chief executives invited to champion the UN Women HeForShe solidarity movement for gender equality.

‘Gender equality has been integral to Vodafone’s core purpose for over a decade,’ explains Govindji. ‘Vittorio had a personal experience of working in a gender equal environment, with 50 per cent women, in a successful business. In his mind, gender equality was what needed to happen to make businesses successful. He set targets and held people accountable. These were not easy to do, but he shook things up.’

We have young women who tell us that they applied because they had heard of our maternity policy

In 2015, Vodafone set a target to ensure that 30 per cent of its management and leadership roles were held by women by 2020. ‘We have achieved that – we’re now at 31 per cent – so we have reset our goal to 40 per cent by 2030. On average, we increase the numbers by one per cent per year, which is a net figure as we lose some women unfortunately, but we continually hire around 50 per cent female graduates so we make sure we have a talent pool, and then we do everything we can to maintain that balance as they grow through our business.’

In the year that the targets were set, Vodafone also launched its group-wide maternity policy. The idea was spawned from the realisation that statutory maternity policies varied quite dramatically in the different countries in which Vodafone operated. For example, while new mothers in America are entitled to 12 weeks’ maternity leave, it is unpaid, while in Greece, 17 weeks’ maternity leave is split before and after a birth.

‘Women matter wherever they are,’ says Govindji. ‘We’re a company that believes in women, so we needed to have an equal playing field.’ Vodafone Group brought in a global maternity policy across its 30 operating companies, which offers new mothers 16 weeks of paid leave – although many countries already exceed that – plus a phased-in return to work. For the first six months after new mothers return to work, they are paid for a five-day week while only working four.

‘It’s about enabling them to ease back into the workplace,’ explains Govindji. ‘Global companies need to be bold and to set standards that are acceptable across the business. Whether you are a front-line woman working in an African country or a director in a European country, it shouldn’t matter. These minimum standards are really important.’

We estimate that we have about 1,500 women a year [about one per cent of our global workforce] who benefit from our maternity policy; there is a fear about costs that is greater than the reality.

Before launching the policy, Vodafone was keen to understand the economic realities of new mothers. Partnering with professional services consultancy KPMG, it found that the annual cost to global businesses implementing an identical maternity policy totalled $28 billion but the global cost of new mothers deciding not to return to work added up to a whopping $47 billion, due to recruiting and retraining expenses.

The analysis – dubbed Maternomics – revealed that, by implementing a maternity policy offering 16 weeks’ paid leave, global businesses could potentially save $19 billion every year. ‘There’s a cost,’ concedes Govindji. ‘But there’s a cost anyway. We estimate that we have about 1,500 women a year [representing about one per cent of a global workforce of 111,000 people] who benefit from our maternity policy, so the scale of numbers is not that high. There is a fear about costs that is greater than the reality.’

She recommends that companies looking to follow suit need, firstly, to find out how much they already spend on maternity leave for female workers. But then to follow that up by examining the hidden costs, such as the rate of returning women.

‘If x per cent are not going to return, but would return with a more generous maternity policy, then that impacts the business,’ she adds. ‘We never had to sell that business case internally if I am honest. Intuitively, it felt like the right thing to do. But that research from KPMG was shared with other companies just to demonstrate that this absolutely makes sense.

‘There are other benefits, in terms of your employer brand, which cannot be measured as easily. We have young women who tell us, even if they are not thinking about having families now, that they applied because they had heard of our maternity policy. It is not the reason to do it [launch global policy], but it is a positive outcome.’

After focusing on supporting new mothers, Vodafone considered other ways to help women in the workplace. It was aware that improving the percentage of women in senior management roles took time – the company worked hard to support and retain existing colleagues as their careers progressed – but wondered if there was another way.

By implementing a maternity policy offering 16 weeks’ paid leave, global businesses could potentially save $19 billion every year

‘With KPMG, we tried to consider the size of the potential pool of women who were on a career break. They found a pool of 96 million women globally, 50 million of which were management level or above. The call of action was simple There is this pool, and it is in every country around the world. We used that date to say we’re going to commit to bringing 1,000 women into real jobs by 2020,’ says Govindji.

‘We weren’t the first to launch a returner programme, but the scale was different. It also isn’t a returnship, in that you come and try working with us, and 50 per cent might make it but 50 per cent won’t. It is offering women – and men – who have had up to ten years off, the chance to return to corporate life. But we can’t hire all these women alone.’

Vodafone is sharing the research to encourage other companies to follow suit. Candidates go through a normal interview process, but are marked as a ReConnect candidate, which means that those reviewing applications expect to see a gap in curriculum vitae – there is no unconscious bias. About 15 per cent of ReConnects are men.

‘We’ve hired about 25 per cent of our target, so we have to accelerate our progress,’ she adds. ‘The volume of applications is high, but our challenge is trying to find a role that matches the right job and opportunity. We are looking at real jobs so it takes time.’

Vodafone is also aware that, as well as its ground-breaking initiatives, tackling gender imbalance requires sorting out the basics. Tackling unconscious bias within the interview processes, for example, is a key priority, as is setting gender targets for shortlists. In the UK, recruitment teams now have a target to deliver 50:50 shortlists for all senior roles; if these are not met, HR gets involved.

It has also tackled the wording in job advertisements, replacing jargon, abbreviations and macho language, such as ‘kick’ and ‘aggressive’ with terms like ‘bold‘ and ‘extraordinary’. Last year, the company also refreshed its unconscious bias and diversity training.

‘We have tried to raise awareness of unconscious bias with managers and leaders through training. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this alone is not enough to solve the problem… it is embedded, it is who we are, where we come from. Where key decisions are being made, we will have a prompt about unconscious bias. In and off themselves, these won’t solve the problem,’ says Govindji.

‘So, we are also working to de-bias hiring processes, and are piloting some schemes. Everybody needs to be on board if we are to achieve gender equality. We have to hit it at multiple levels.’