According to the UK Country Report 2018 conducted by 20-First, of the 220 Executive Committee (EC) members in the top teams of the leading 20 companies, 82% are men.
With recent results also revealing that fewer than half of the UK’s largest firms have succeeded in narrowing their gender pay gap, it is more important than ever to address the gender imbalances in business.
“Women are not prepared- when you have a child your business looks at you in a different way", said Vicky Pryce, Chief Economic Adviser and Board Member at the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), panel member at the BIG Debate.
Gender gap reports shine a light on transparency as companies are in competition, but a lot still needs to be done to drive change.
Could women’s networks be the answer?
Female-focussed networking groups, in particular for business, have grown in popularity in recent years-and while this suggests that there is a need for them, they could seem at odds with current trends around diversity in business.
For some in the industry, female-only spaces offer women a non-judgemental space in which they can discuss business and gender issues away from their often male-dominated working environments.
“When a few women are put in a room of men, half will be passive and the other half will take on an aggressive role. Put 50-60 women in a room without men, and magic happens”, said Dr Shima Barakat, Founder and Director of Impact Women's Network.
Shima Barakat and Vicky Pryce were among a panel of experts who discussed the topic with business leaders from the Institute of Directors (IoD) Cambridgeshire branch at the BIG debate on Wednesday 5th June 2019.
“Women’s networks are a safe space to speak and learn the problems which women face in business and prepare them”, said Vicky Pryce, continuing, “You will not get promoted without the help and guidance of other women”.
“If we can get established women investing in younger women we can create a shift”, Shima Barakat commented.
However, while women’s networks are useful for mentoring younger females and potentially assist them with securing high- profile jobs, for many, they are sometimes seen as further segregating genders in business.
“Women do not need to be helped. It just embeds the problem of gender inequality and exclusion in business. Stop fixing women and get with the game!” said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO at 20-First.
Some would also argue that it is just as important for women to be in networks with men in order to be known and considered for the top jobs.
Concerns surrounding female-only networks actually hindering women’s progress in business have made many people question whether they should be avoided altogether. Our panellists may have the solution:
“First we need the energy from the female networks. Then it is time for the dialogue. Once we get the balance, gender issues will become people issues”, Shima Barakat explained.
“It is about re-branding”, said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, adding, “We need to turn women’s networks into balanced networks based on shared interests for men and women”.
Those common interests could include issues surrounding pay and flexi time for maternity and paternity leave, all of which still display disproportions due to gender.
When choosing which networks to join, it appears that it should not be a case of either-or. Women’s networks are great, and for many they are essential in the fight for gender diversity in business.
However women need to be part of mixed networks too in order to receive the necessary support to prepare them for business and encourage them to strive for CEO positions.
Perhaps in the future, as the experts pointed out, gender issues will just be people issues, in which case women’s networks would no longer serve a purpose. For now the key is for women to make the most of all opportunities that come their way.
So, fancy joining a network and driving change?
The IoD is not a bad place to start- an established business community which celebrates, nurtures, and inspires female directors from all sizes of business, through their leadership learning, courses, and networking events.
As strong advocates for gender diversity in business, the IoD has even set up an Enterprising Women Hub packed full of helpful advice and useful resources to enable us to work together to better understand and accommodate the needs of female professionals.
For more information about what the IoD has to offer business leaders, visit our member services page.
To find out how to get involved in the IoD East of England business community, visit our events page here.