Yesterday the Observer had a big feature on the state of play in the UK for Women and how we fare in claiming our place in the boardroom. The results of their study make for some depressing reading. According to the study, there are 242 female executive directors out of the total number 2742 positions across the whole FTSE 350 companies. This adds up to a rather paltry 8.8%. So what is going on here? This is an age old debate and one which there does not seem to be a clear answer.
The issues that women face
Recruiting just like me: The article speculates that many people recruit in their own mold. They look for people who have the same attitudes, belief and experience that they have. This makes it very challenging for women (ie not being male) to break through
Experience required: Before being on the board of a FTSE 350 company, most organisations want to recruit people who have experience. This is a classic catch-22 situation that people face at all levels of business
Organisational prejudice: This is the one that depresses me most… But there certainly does seem to be a certain number of businesses that think women just aren’t good enough
Lack of awareness: What you measure is what you get. Out of all the companies surveyed on 34% disclosed the gender split of their workforce and 22% the gender split of their management. The rest either don’t know or are embarrassed.
Limited flexible working: It’s a fact of life that women are the main carers of children in our society. When they return to work and are faced with having to work at the same level as pre-children many leave corporate life and either set up their own business or move on to a role that is more family friendly.
Lack of confidence: There have been a number of studies which have looked at the difference in the way that men and women view their skills and abilities against job roles. Women will frequently be more humble about their successes and less assertive when putting themselves forward – leaving those that make the decision with the view that they are not ready for the role.
Lack of committment: It can be challenging being a woman in a male dominated environment and I know of many women who decide that they have had enough of the politics, trying to manoever into the old boys network, and the sexism and just decide to withdraw from the race. Also, for many women, managing a family and a high powered career can be difficult and they choose family over career.
There are many reasons that women don’t reach the top echelons of these organisations – however that doesn’t mean that we should give up and just accept this as the state of play. The guardian article cites the example of Cairn Energy. Cairn Energy freely admits that there is room for improvement but it has one of the few female finance directors and senior exploration geologists. However it really stands out in India where it employs several women engineers and runs a number of awareness and vocational programmes for women in their local area. Pearson is a shining example of how companies can get it right with a female CEO and Finance Director (wouldn’t it be great if there were more companies like this?) The opposite is a company like Royal Bank of Scotland which has no women.
Advice for women with aspirations for the top
Network, network, network: It’s important to develop relationships with key people in your own organisation, in your industry and with key influencers in your industry. People remember people that they know like and trust and networking is a key part to developing those relationships.
Get a coach: If you want to make to to the top invest in an executive coach who will help you develop your strategy and work with you on your journey. A coach will also help you celebrate and acknowledge your successes and work with you to find solutions to barriers on the way.
Find a mentor: This is similar to above, but those that make it to the top will have an internal mentor who will help them navigate unchartered waters and support them within the organisation
Join a charity as a board member: If experience is what they are looking for, becoming a trustee and board member for a charity can be a great way to develop the skills required (with the added benefit of doing good at the same time!)
Seek out a role as non-executive director: Again, this may need to be pro-bono initially to develop your skills, but will also give you valuable insight into the workings of the board room.
So what can we do?
There is no magic bullet, however I do think that we can move forward and start to have an impact on those depressing statistics. Though it’s not going to happen for us. We need to step up and start changing this ourselves rather than waiting for government legislation to sort it out for us. However it’s not going to be an easy road. I am personally a fan of positive discrimination or affirmative action. An affirmative action study in 1998 showed that when it is used in recruitment, it enables women and minorities to take on a role whose experience is a little weaker though performance generally is not. It can be a really powerful way of creating more balance in an extremely unbalanced system and can help us get over some of the catch-22’s that exist.
We definitely need to see mentoring programmes developed within organisations to help men and women work together and create an environment that encourages women to grow, succeed and take on executive roles. It would be great to see Government take an active interest in helping women succeed (there is a great organisation called the Downing Street Project to help women take on lead roles in politics and a great example of women taking action
What do you think? How can we take action and start turning the big ship of gender inequality around? Let us know your thoughts.