The good news is that it’s now largely accepted that having women on boards is beneficial to the company. Studies by organisations such as McKinsey have found that diverse boards are more effective, more innovative and financially more successful. The bad news is that despite this, there are still very few women up there running companies, at the top of the judiciary or sitting round the Cabinet table and although nearly 23% of directors of FTSE 100 companies are women, most of them are non-executives. It’s depressing to read that it may take as long as 25 years for a third of CEOs to be women.
Academically women are on top. Nearly 60% of new graduates are women as are over 50% of new postgraduates and they are entering the professions in equal or, in some spheres, greater numbers to men. But once they become mothers, the percentages change as many successful, highly-trained women drift away from jobs in the professions or large corporations in search of more flexible working lives. This not only produces an immediate problem of lost skills but a long-term one as the pipeline to the senior level from which leaders are chosen is deprived of talented women. It then may be perfectly legitimate to claim there isn’t a right woman for the job.
As is so often said, the problem is that the workplace was created by men for men and today that means it is no longer keeping up with changes in society as a whole. Companies need to do more than pay lip service to diversity; they have to take decisive action to change the working culture.
Here’s my list of 10 steps for any employer serious about change.
• Get over prejudice against flexible working. People don’t need to be nailed to an office desk from dawn to midnight. What with email, the internet & video-conferencing working from home should be easier than ever before.
• Don’t rate people only by the number of hours they work. Putting in time doesn’t necessarily add value. It can simply create a perverse incentive to be inefficient.
• Stop seeing parenting as a woman’s problem. Concessions to fathers shouldn’t undermine their future prospects. If the weight of family responsibilities is truly shared, women will find it easier to manage challenging jobs.
• Enable sponsorship. Mentoring is helpful but women also need senior sponsors to promote them. Mentors talk to you, sponsors talk about you.
• Create stepping stone opportunities and be prepared to take a few risks.
• Put less pressure on people to race up the ladder. ‘Up or out’ has to go. Most of us are going to be working for longer than our parents. Let some peak in their 50s rather than expecting top achievement in the early 40s. More gradual pacing makes sense and would avoid penalising interludes of reduced activity or maternity leave.
• Make sure client events are well balanced and not just about male bonding.
• Beware of unconscious bias. It is very common to appoint people in our own image – disastrous for diversity.
• Set targets for promoting women to senior posts.
• Appoint someone with serious clout to oversee all of the above.