I think for many of us who have worked in corporate and large businesses the question of women’s absence in the boardroom seems like an age-old chestnut. In my experience there has not been a lack of good women on the ladder to the top but men always seem to beat them to the final rung.
The fact that girls outshine boys at school exams, and university stats confirm that we are doing better there too, suggests that women are the more likely candidate for success in their careers. But there is a leakage in the career pipeline which sees women leaving good management posts for alternative life choices whilst men progress through to higher achievements whether they are better suited or not. There has been very little intervention in the UK to address this issue. In fact, a global poll conducted by Newsweek on the ‘best and worst places for women to work’ put the UK 19th on the list.
We know that so much needs to be done before there is parity in the boardroom and this involves massive change. I was fortunate to be invited by Sonia (Brown – National Black Women’s Network) to attend a Symposium in London at the end of last year. Some 50 of us (politicians, corporate leaders and businesswomen) debated how we might change the political, social and commercial landscape to increase our global ranking by 2015. It was clear that the debate isn’t solely about gender parity but parity across society to deliver fairness of opportunity for all.
This is such a huge ask of everyone, particularly in our mixed society of different religions, cultures and language, and with this the sub class structures, religious laws, and traditional discrimination within cultures. At an earlier event last year where the subject of gender parity was discussed amongst women representing different social and business backgrounds I was made aware just how prevalent gender discrimination is. I heard that some girls are pulled out of school as soon as the state allows because their culture believes that they have nothing to contribute by receiving an education. I also heard that some groups in our society frown on women voting. I was shocked by my own naivety, but this demonstrates the challenge facing us to deliver a more enlightened society – creating awareness of these issues and finding a way of working alongside them.
There is also an attitudinal issue. I listened to Karren Brady (Lord Sugar’s side kick on The Apprentice and entrepreneur) being interviewed on the radio and she describes her days as MD of Birmingham City FC (at 23 years of age) as ‘the elephant in the room’. She says that an ambitious man is regarded as one ‘who knows where he is going’ whereas an ambitious women is thought to be ‘ruthless..must be awful’. She responded to critics who thought her star would rapidly burn out by returning Birmingham City to profit and her tips for other aspiring female entrepreneurs is to ‘articulate your view without emotion’. In other words take responsibility for your career.
The Symposium concluded that all stakeholders – that means everyone – have action points which will move the UK in the right direction toward gender and social equality: industry needs to be more transparent in their organisational structure demonstrating diversity and opportunity for all; business needs to adopt a more flexible approach to employment and development of personnel irrespective of gender; government must act on their intentions to create gender parity in society; and we need education to change attitudes and encourage men to step up to a shared role in child care and other responsibilities previously expected of women.
I have two daughters and a son. I already see the societal influences affecting their expectations in the way they talk to one another and behave amongst their peers. Perhaps it is at this point that subliminally career expectations amongst girls plateaus at middle management. I feel it is not enough to be a parent instilling a more ambitious view on our children, the support has to be embedded in our culture, and I hope we can achieve some shift towards making the UK a better society for opportunities for women by 2015.