UK companies are facing growing criticism for not hiring more women to senior positions.
Women in leadership roles remain rare in British business. Fewer than one in five of the nearly 6 million businesses in the UK in 2018 had female bosses, according to government figures. There are more men called David running FTSE100 companies than women.
Although the number of all-male boards has tumbled in recent years, from 152 in 2011 to 10 in 2017, it looks likely that the government’s target for a third of FTSE leadership positions to be filled by women by 2020 will be missed. The number of female chairs of FTSE350 companies has remained flat, while the number of women CEOs actually fell in 2018.
The government branded some of the explanations given by companies for not appointing more female directors, including that they don’t understand the “extremely complex” issues that major companies’ boards have to deal with and that they “don’t want the hassle or pressure” as outrageous.” One boss said: “We have one woman on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn.” Reading this list of excuses might make you think we’re not living in the 21st century, said Amanda Mackenzie, Chief Executive of Business in the Community.
The situation isn’t much better outside the corporate sector. The gap between the proportion of men and women in Britain that own or run start-up businesses is bigger than in most other European countries as well as a host of others around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Japan, India and Malaysia, according to data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitoring Consortium.
What’s the problem?
There are plenty of talented and ambitious women in businesses, but they need a culture and environment in which to thrive. “I think it has to do with the traditional way in which many businesses are run and how they’re organised,” says IoD Advance member Talita Ferreira, a business consultant who was a senior executive at BMW and is also a non-executive director.
“There remains a stigma attached to taking lengthy periods off work to care for children and flexible working arrangements still aren’t well established in many businesses. These make it very difficult to create a consistent pipeline of talented female leaders,” says Ferreira.
The failure of more firms to implement flexible working practices has directly affected the number of women in leadership positions, according to research by Timewise and Deloitte. It states: “For too long those who have needed to work fewer hours or work flexibly have faced career penalties because of a workplace that was designed for a family structure where one person stayed at home and another went out to work. However this traditional structure no longer represents the majority of UK households.”
Parental leave isn’t just an issue for women. “I mentor quite a few male business leaders and several of them who have taken time out to care for their children told me they were viewed differently when they returned to work,” Ferreira comments. “If men won’t take paternity leave because they fear it could have an impact on their careers then it will inevitably fall on mothers to take time out instead. Without help in reintegrating them back to work or allowing them to work flexibly then it becomes very, very difficult for them to progress.”
Although more companies have introduced flexible working, there is still a culture of fixed working hours and ‘presenteeism’ in British workplaces, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. “People aren’t being judged on what they achieve, but instead on when or where they achieve it,” argues Ferreira.
Culture change needed
Companies need to embrace a cultural shift to more enlightened gender-neutral working practices, so all their employees know it’s okay to work flexibly and to take parental leave, says Timewise. “I honestly believe those changes could move the dial a lot in creating more women business leaders,” says Ferreira.
The bottom line is that greater diversity helps boost companies’ bottom line. A study by Boston Consulting Group of 1700 firms across eight countries found that companies that have more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue. It stated” “increasing the diversity of leadership teams leads to more and better innovation and improved financial performance.”
Some companies who have appointed female directors or leaders have been disappointed that they haven’t brought the fresh perspective they were hoping for, says Ferreira. But that’s often because women have had to adapt to a company’s male-dominated culture to get ahead, she says. They’ve had to assimilate its values and outlook. “I recently met a female architect who told me she had stopped wearing dresses into work because she thought they stopped her from being taken seriously,” Ferreira says.
Businesses need to go beyond looking at how they allow their employees to work, Ferreira suggests. They need to make a bigger shift to a working culture that promotes what Ferreira calls “authenticity – encouraging people to be themselves and not to become corporate clones.”
But there are encouraging signs that increasing numbers of women are making it to the top in business. The number of women on FTSE 100 boards has exceeded 30% for the first time ever. Ferreira has begun to see more female faces among those people taking the directors’ leadership courses she runs for the IoD. “I also see a lot more women in the members’ lounges at the Institute – and younger women at that. That’s a welcome change.”
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