According to World Economic Forum research from this October, the gender gap between men and women in the UK workplace has widened. I find this incredibly disappointing. I started my career in the late ’90s and, perhaps naively, I really didn’t think we would still be having this debate as we enter 2015 but since we are, we must start to look at this issue differently to solve the lack of gender parity amongst our business leaders.
“At an entry level…there are typically an even number of men and women joining businesses, but as they work their way up, the number of women begins to fall.”
There has been progress
That is not to say there hasn’t been progress. A very senior female banker I know recently retired and I spoke to her about her experiences. She told me some quite outrageous stories about behaviour she encountered, particularly in the early stages of her career. These were shocking stories of women being barred from corporate events or battling in an entirely male dominated office. Thankfully, I have never suffered that sort of prejudice, and many of my peers say the same. So why has the gender gap widened?
At an entry level, for example analyst or graduate trainees, there are typically an even number of men and women joining businesses, but as they work their way up, the number of women begins to fall. This leaves companies with a smaller group to choose from for senior roles and, of course, unconscious bias also remains a problem. Having lived in seven different countries, I know that moving up the corporate ladder often requires relocation to another city or country, frequent travel and nights away from home. This can be a challenge for anyone wanting to raise a family.
The bionic woman
I also think we need to stop the ‘bionic woman’ stereotype we see in the media: the career woman who has reached the top, works out at 4am, is immaculately turned out, gets home in time to put her children to bed and survives on four hours sleep a night. Whilst it is impressive to read about such exceptional individuals, we desperately need a balance here too. We need to read about authentic women and men who have made mistakes, who aren’t perfect, who worry they are inadequate, but still succeed. If we constantly provide portrayals of bionic leaders, we run the risk of putting off the 30 year old with leadership potential who believes she isn’t capable of, or simply doesn’t want, that type of lifestyle.
“We need to read about authentic women and men who have made mistakes, who aren’t perfect, who worry they are inadequate, but still succeed.”
So what can we do?
I believe senior women and our male peers need to intervene at middle management level and champion women as leaders. We should provide greater support and encouragement, long before the stage where our female managers begin to fall in numbers. It may be as simple as providing extra coaching and having regular conversations to really find out what is preventing them from moving into their next role.
Having both formal and informal mentors is hugely valuable. When I look back at my career, I have worked with, and been helped by, both men and women in senior positions. I believe this is crucial to helping women advance. I have always reached out to people I have worked for, or respected, and asked them for advice- not mentors as such, but people who have always been willing to help and give me honest (and sometimes tough) feedback. I have also always picked mentors who are different from me, because if I picked someone just like me I would be seeking validation rather than looking for someone to challenge my ideas and help me grow in my career.
“I believe senior women and our male peers need to intervene at middle management level and champion women as leaders.”
I work with capable, talented and driven women every day, and have no doubt that many of them have the potential to be senior leaders. I recently appointed the CEO of M&S Bank and first direct into my team because they were the best candidates for the job. They happened to be talented women.
We need to inspire, encourage and promote these women to ensure we are not still having this debate in 2030.