21 April 2016


Women in senior positions need to make themselves visible

Gender diversity in the workplace and why women need to make themselves visible.

Women in senior positions need to make themselves visible

Sharon White, Chief Executive of Ofcom

‘Woman gets senior job’. This is not news. At least, it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, when a woman lands the top job it does tend to make headline news. 

In 2015, a review of female representation on boards in the UK[1] reported that 23.5% of roles are now filled by women. This is almost double what it was in 2011 so there is no doubt that progress is being made. But there is still much more to do. 23.5% is a long way from 50%.

Career choices start early. Social stereotypes are in place before children start school. By the end of primary school, boys and girls are already making choices about the sort of lives they want to lead, the careers they might have, and the people they will become.

They have dreams, aspirations and ambitions which are shaped by what they see in the world around them. If they look to business and see that senior roles are mostly occupied by men, this will shape how they see their future. Young girls will grow up believing certain career paths are simply not for them.

What can business do to make sure this doesn’t happen? How can we, as leaders, convince these girls that they are the next generation of business leaders?

First, we need to start early. Some years ago, I was involved with an agency which recruited people with engineering skills. They started their outreach programme at primary school, as they judged leaving it any later made it too hard to persuade girls that engineering might be for them.

Young girls will only believe that a career – at the most senior levels – is an option if they see women working in senior positions today. They need to see women who are doing fantastic jobs and think ‘that could be me’. They need those of us in senior positions to make ourselves visible.

There are some excellent school outreach initiatives already in place. STEMNET, for example, works with schools and colleges to inspire young people and promote careers in Science, Technology and Mathematics. The Inspiring Women initiative organises for women to give talks in schools about the jobs they do and their own career paths. These are the things that make a real difference to young girls’ career aspirations.

We also need to support young women as they bridge the gap between education and working life, and offer on-going mentoring and support throughout their careers.

We also need to support young women as they bridge the gap between education and working life, and offer on-going mentoring and support throughout their careers. This is particularly important after having children. Women coming back to work after maternity need to feel supported so that they can raise a family while continuing to build a career.

In the twenty-first century, women should not have to make a choice between having children and having a career. I am lucky; I’ve never had to do that. I have a husband who has always shared domestic responsibilities with me. Over the course of our careers, we have taken turns to work flexibly so we can raise our children together.

Juggling childcare, domestic duties and a job is incredibly challenging, even when both partners pull their weight. All of us – men and women – need as much support as we can get.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that far more women than men work part-time. Of course, I know many women do this because it’s what they want. Conversely, I know many couples choose this option because they don’t feel they have any alternative. Rightly or wrongly, there is still a widespread belief that it is career-limiting or impossible for a man to move to a part-time or flexible working arrangement after having children.

Recent legislation introducing shared parental leave is a very positive step forward. Businesses now need to work with their employees to ensure shared parental leave and flexible working patterns are options for all working parents, not just women.

Of course, actions speak louder than words. Here at Ofcom, I am proud of the fact that we back initiatives such as STEMNET and Inspiring Women, actively encouraging our staff to participate. One of the biggest responsibilities - and joys - for women who have made it in their career is to spend time with women who are just starting out, demonstrating what is possible and that you don't need to be Superwoman.

When I was writing this piece, a colleague asked me what my vision was for gender diversity in business. I think I can sum that up quite simply: to reach a point where ‘Woman doesn’t get senior job’ is worthy of its own headline.

It’s something I’d like to see in my lifetime. I hope that I will.


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