Last month I reviewed a book called Eve on Top: Women’s experience of success in the public sector. This set out the findings from a qualitative research project carried out with the help of 16 ‘successful’ women with a background in the public sector, by two academics, David Baker and Bernadette Cassidy.
Last month, Lord Davies published his independent report on Women on Boards. His opening statement was: ‘At the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK’.
I personally fail to see how his recommendations, which have been widely welcomed, will be sufficient of themselves, to effect the change needed to speed this process up. Much of the debate seemed to centre around quotas or not. In the end, it was decided not. Much has been said from both sides of the divide but in the end, as Davies pointed out, it is up to the government, and therefore quotas are unlikely to be introduced. Instead we have targets and progress reports, that is, if the government accept the recommendations. Theresa May with her portfolio for women and equality will be ‘considering his findings very carefully’.
For me the recommendations were very narrow, given the range of issues that make up the lack of diversity in the workplace. Research was undertaken as part of the review and the responses are provided as appendices. The conclusions highlight two issues that were raised throughout the exercise:
• A lack of flexibility around work/life balance particularly around maternity leave and young families
• The perception of a traditional male cultural environment, the old boys network and a lack of networking opportunities for women.
Clearly it was not within Lord Davies remit to suggest how these issues might be addressed, but they must be addressed, if companies are to meet the targets. This clearly depends on whether the government requires them to do so and even then, if the companies actually comply. As we know, only too well governments in this country are particularly sqeamish about regulation.
Eve on Top deals with the important issues for women from a qualitative point of view, because, as pointed out, there is a host of quantitative research on women in the workplace. The conclusion in the book states: ‘…but the evidence from our work identified a range of cultural and attitudinal factors that continue to stand in the way of equal partnership at the top table for able women’. The book provides a wealth of information and in-sight to the motivations and obstacles of the women interviewed; the kind of information which we already know but is not documented in this detail.
The women who took part were high-achievers, ambitious, determined and self-motivated. Yet they admitted to lacking in self-belief, which had been difficult to dispel, but eventually they overcame through a desire to do well. Throughout their lives they had been willing to seek out and optimise opportunities available to them and some had benefited from mentoring. However, they had generally to work out their career progression for themselves but always trying to maintain a work-life balance. Some had been more successful than others.
Mentoring, networking and role models had been important to them as they had progressed. However not all had been lucky enough to have mentors or role models and had felt they had missed out as a result, especially where there were no women to provide the support. Many of the women are now providing the support that they did not always get themselves, to both men and women. Networks were seen to be useful but less so.
The women felt that there are times when women are not sure of how to behave in certain situations and this is sometimes aggravated as a result of lack of confidence earlier on in the working life.
The women identified four barriers that they had experienced: sexual and other forms of discrimination, although less so as they climbed the ladder; problems with the dominant male culture; self-imposed barriers and barriers put up by other women, the so-called ‘queen bee syndrome’.
All the women agreed that the ‘glass ceiling’ exists although not all had experienced it directly.
Some of the women had to make sacrifices to achieve their success. For them it was family and their personal time which had suffered although few had any regrets. Interestingly some of them had felt a duty to provide a role model for other women.
Many of the women had roles outwith the workplace as carers, but it was acknowledged that they had priveleged positions because of their economic independence which allowed them to manage responsibilities. Some stressed the importance of having a supportive partner in managing these responsibilities.
Some of the women felt that they had to work harder in order to progress and also that they had to sacrifice more. However it was felt that this did not hold once they reached the more senior positions.
The section on leadership and management styles is particularly interesting. Men are seen to be more competitive but the women felt that they were much harder on themselves. They tended to see leadership styles as being gender-specific and in fact some saw themselves as having more male-oriented styles and finding it easier to relate to male managers. Some of them did identify differences between genders in how decisions are made, democratic versus dictatorial approaches to management and the influence of ego on management style. Many of the women do think that there are more female-oriented styles now emerging with ‘with particular reference to a transformational approach, extensive communication with and involvement of staff and delegation, in order to ensure that senior managers such as the women in the study were able to concentrate on their strategic roles. These women believed in being true to themselves, being able to admit when they are wrong and take criticism and thought that men in senior positions are still some way away from this.
The women believe that men could benefit from some advice. There are still gender differences in the workplace which have not yet been overcome. The women suggested that senior men could be better at listening and be more open and accessible. They need to look with gender-neutral eyes at the talent that is available and be more open to collaboration and team-work. The women want men to see what senior staff have in common and build on that, rather than looking at differences. They also believe that young women need to have confidence and to be themselves. However they should also work hard, while trying to achieve balance and don’t be afraid to accept help. A word of caution too: to take care in how they communicate. Finally they encourage young women to be ‘adventurous in making decisions’.