There’s the story of the little ten year old boy (born just as Margaret Thatcher took up residence in 10 Downing Street) who asked his mother “Do you think there’ll ever be a male Prime Minister in my lifetime?!”
The rights and ability (two very different things) of women to work and progress in business have been on the national agenda for many years. It’s been two years since Lord Davies published a UK government-backed report that set a target for a minimum of 25% female board representation in FTSE-100 companies. Last year David Cameron announced that too few women in boardrooms was holding back the country’s economy. While I consider that more women in boardrooms would be healthy, I’m not at all sure that I like the approach taken by Lord Davies, neither do I necessarily agree that too few women in boardrooms holds the economy back. Men don’t always get it right, but let’s accept that they have achieved a good deal in the past.
Despite these efforts, progress has been slow and it seems that not much has really changed (other than the fact that people are more aware of the issue). Since the eighties, more women have sought corporate roles and the number of opportunities and variety of openings available has significantly increased as a result. There is still a long way to go.
600 CEOs and directors were recently surveyed by board network Inspire and executive search firm Harvey Nash, and the findings suggest that 52% of the respondents believe today’s corporate cultures have the effect of reducing the length of time that women stay to develop their career with their employer.
It is thought that one of the issue lies with the tendency to reward those employees to whom they have immediate access and see regularly. A period of maternity leave means that many women are no longer ‘physically’ visible in the company and this can hinder their opportunities and progression. Alexa Bailey, co-founder of Inspire and consultant at Harvey Nash, says that activities such as networking, social events and staying longer in the office, can often help an individual’s career, but these are harder to do if employees have responsibilities outside of work.
On 10th April 2013, Lord Davies published his second annual progress report into Women on Boards, which has found that the numbers of women appointed to be non-executives has been growing. Good news on the surface. However, the number of women holding executive positions still remains unchanged. And some companies are still falling short of taking meaningful action to address the issues.
Intelligent business owners realise that a diverse board is a stronger board. According to Business Secretary Vince Cable, women “can bring fresh perspectives and ideas, talent and broader experience which leads to better decision making”.
Women respondents to the survey indicated that an improved culture, flexible working and the removal of unconscious bias in the workplace would be the most effective way to resolve the issue. Employers should take such steps as they can to improve gender diversity, It’s not just about equality and diversity; it’s also about good business sense.
In closing I must insert here a view about being realistic. I have said this many times before, but it’s worth repetition. Nobody – however rich or clever they are – can have it all. Life is all about compromise and life in business is no exception, especially in a senior role. Women should have the opportunity to join the boards of companies and achieve it on their own merit. If they want to go to the very top, they will have to accept that something will have to give. Few executives (of whatever gender) are home every day at 5pm. No matter how “smart” you work, many will have to work at weekends; it goes with the turf. I want women to reach for the stars – but don’t expect gold-plated rights either.
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