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Actions speak louder

9 February 2016

Everyone has a part to play in ensuring there are more women in leadership – and not just non-executive – roles, as delegates at the recent First Women Summit discussed.

When it comes to gender diversity, there has been a shift in focus from women on boards to women in executive roles.

It was a topic that came to the fore at the First Women Summit – an event supported by the CBI. And it chimed with CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn’s call the week earlier for a new voluntary target of 25 per cent female senior executives in the UK’s major companies.

Despite the significant progress made by the Davies Review, which shows that women’s representation on FTSE 100 boards has more than doubled to 26% in less than five years, the number of FTSE 100 female executive directors still represents less than 10 per cent. There are only 16 female CEOs in the FTSE 350.

“It’s fantastic that women are present in boardrooms in greater numbers,” said Fairbairn. “But let’s be clear. Non-executive directors and even chairmen attend between four and 10 board meetings a year. They approve strategy, are guardians of values, challenge decisions and help manage risk.

“These are important roles, but it is the job of executives to take daily decisions, shape and define strategy, and influence culture through the everyday examples that they set.  They are the sleeves-rolled-up leaders in our society.”

Working at the top

The First Women Summit heard from many of these “sleeves-rolled-up leaders” – running their own businesses or working their way up to the top ranks within their companies and sectors. 

They included Mandeep Rai, chief executive of Creative Visions Global, who said that it’s fair enough to say ‘lean in’ – referring to the book by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg – “but we need something to lean on. Women need support to find equality.”

I see women leave every week, at partner level, because it's too tough and they have too few role models

Karen Hester, chief operating officer at brewery Adnams, told the summit: “Be the best you can be and there are no glass ceilings.” But Hilary Thomas, partner at KPMG, echoed Fairbairn’s concern that people now needed to talk more about the “sticky floors” that discourage women from taking the top jobs.

“I see women leave every week, at partner level, because it’s too tough and they have too few role models,” said Thomas.

It’s time to man up

Thomas was speaking as part of a panel discussion about how to get men involved in the gender diversity debate. The panel included Dawn Ohlson, UK business engineering director and the most senior engineer at Thales UK; Mark McLane, global head of diversity and inclusion at Barclays; and Richard Chapman-Harris , equality, diversity and inclusion manager at Mott MacDonald.

As a further sign of how the agenda has moved on, Olhson argued that women’s networks were counterproductive because they excluded men from the issue. “This is not a woman problem,” she added.

And adding his voice to the debate that suggested women should “choose their battles to win the war” so as not to discourage men from getting involved, Chapman-Harris said it was important to address men’s fear of the gender diversity topic.

On a more practical level, McLane explained how Barclays was harnessing wider movements for change – partnering with the United Nations HeforShe campaign and Stonewall – to emphasise to employees how important this issue is. And, talking in a language that senior management could understand, he repeated the argument that diverse boards are now known to deliver better financial results.

But highlighting the extent of the barriers to change, both Chapman-Harris and McLane said they had faced questions as to whether – as men – they were best placed to push this particular agenda, even though they felt they had proven skills that could make a difference.

Deeper problems

Part of the problem can be explained by unconscious bias, said chartered psychologist Dr Peter Jones – and not just from men against women, but women against women too.

He raised a stark warning of what would happen if everyone didn’t make the effort to challenge their perceptions: “Unless we train ourselves out of and confront unconscious bias, it will be 30 generations before we unpick our wiring."

Unless we train ourselves out of and confront unconscious bias, it will be 30 generations before we unpick our wiring

Once again, the importance of leadership from the top was made clear, with Jones explaining how an organisation’s culture can influence bias. The negative effects of taking maternity leave or working part-time, as well as networking opportunities that favour men, were all flagged as examples, throughout the day, of how imbalances – including the gender pay gap – were stubbornly persistent.

There was also widespread agreement that businesses had a bigger role to play to make a difference for future generations.

“Girls do brilliantly in education, but fall out of the pipeline aged 30-35,” said Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust. “That’s not just about babies. It’s down to corporate culture.”

 “We need to stop falling into the trap that there are jobs for girls and jobs for boys. That needs to be tackled at school,” said Caroline Dinenage MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Women, Equalities and Family Justice.

Fraser also argued that it was more important for girls to take part in sports, debates and improvisation sessions to prepare them for the world of work – and how to deal with failure – rather than focusing them purely on academic success.

But she emphasised: “Every school in every community needs to make links with business – and female role models are important.”

An event such as the First Women Summit demonstrates there are plenty of role models out there – from the CEO of Newton Investment Management and mother of nine Helena Morrissey to the founder of fashion label People Tree, Safia Minney, who has brought opportunities to women around the world through a focus on Fair Trade. 

It’s now about how to speed up the process of evolution in the workplace, so that, as Fairbairn hopes, “developing more women leaders makes a real difference to the success of the UK economy, our productivity and the UK’s future place in the world”.