I recently interviewed a number of senior women in large organisations and a surprising pattern became apparent: All of the women said that if I’d asked them five years ago to talk about what it’s like to be a woman leader they would have been offended and even annoyed. Yet, in the FTSE 100 companies, only 1 in 5 board members are women and 1 in 20 CEO’s. This is reflected in organisations across the UK and represents a huge financial cost in terms of loss of talent and the recruitment of new employees.
We have moved on and now it’s OK to ask the question and the floodgates are opening. Every woman I speak to has a story about barriers they’ve faced at work because of their gender. Young talented women terrified about the prospect of combining career and family, women who feel a need to continually prove their competence in a room full of male colleagues and women who feel their leadership style doesn’t fit the organisation.
Questions arise: Is it possible to lose the guilt of combining career with motherhood? Find enough time to look after elderly relatives? Resist being protected from the ‘tough’ jobs? Live with the discomfort that can come with being different at the top table? Participate in company politics and see that it can be beneficial – ouch that one hurts!
It’s essential that we talk about the challenge that a lack of gender balance at senior level poses to organisations and the women that work there. However in doing so we must take care that by promoting inclusion of one gender we do not alienate another, our male colleagues.
The challenge is to engage and educate everyone about why we need better gender diversity and more women leaders at senior level in organisations. Then to take practical steps to make it easier for women to go for more promotions, challenge stereotypes, come back after a career break or know they are supported to manage their life outside of work. This leads to cost savings on recruitment, a bigger talent pipeline, better decision making by the leadership team and importantly more fulfilled women (and men!).
We support an increase in flexible working, true pay equality and women’s networks. Yet these stories illustrate that many of the barriers to increasing the number of women in leadership are engrained in our collective psyche and a shift requires changing attitudes and behaviour, which will not happen overnight. So here’s a challenge: ask a few people at your workplace for their thoughts on why we haven’t got more women in those top jobs.
If you have time we’d love to hear your stories, you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Margaret Davies is an Occupational Psychologist and Director of The Glass Lift: Elevating women through the glass ceiling.