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Gender Equality – reaching the final rung

gender equalityThree years on from the ground-breaking Davies Review there continues to be good progress made with greater female representation in the boardroom of the UK’s top companies and a growing recognition of the benefits to business, the economy and wider society. This is backed up by media coverage last week on the latest Government report on gender in boardrooms, which found women now hold a fifth, or 20.7%, of board positions in FTSE 100 companies. That is up from 17.3% in April 2013 and 12.5% in 2011, but short of the 2015 target. So the Davies Review target of 25% by 2015 is within sight but now is not the time to be complacent, as there are still only four female CEO’s amongst the UK’s 100 largest companies.

Commenting on the latest data released, it is clear that Lord Davies is impressed with the rate of change over the last 3 years but for further progress to be made, continued focus is still very much required. There are still some companies with no females directors on their boards – so the debate remains – is the voluntary approach the way to continue or should regulation come into play?

A recent seminar for senior female HR executives, hosted by ResourceBank and Innecto Reward Consulting, invited this select group to consider how they can make that final step up the ladder in 2014 while at the same time challenging some of their own working behaviours and attitudes.

This event, held at The Savoy in London in late February, focused on some key areas with the aim of each attendee leaving armed with constructive ideas to make the final rung a reality. These areas included self-promotion and opportunities to change, support for other women keen to get to the top and also changing attitudes to gender balance within the workplace.

With US market predictions showing that by 2025 women will make up 60% of all graduates, make 80% of consumer decisions and will own 60% of all global wealth, a clear message at the event was the encouragement and mentoring of those on lower rungs of the career ladder. So in that strive for the top rung, it is imperative to bring other women up too by encouragement, giving quality feedback, leading by example and acting as a sponsor and/or mentor to other women within your organisation or networks.

Another key piece of advice, even for this executive level audience, was the need to secure their own mentor, endorsement or sponsorship, gender wasn’t important but the message was clear. Proactively seek this out and develop it – self-promotion is the name of the game. And with that in mind the event also focused on how this can often be an issue, even for the most ambitious.  Many successful women still ask the question “Why am I here?” rather than accepting that they’ve achieved their success because they’re good at what they do and are valued for their contribution.

A recent global study by McKinsey found that CEO’s believe the top four attributes for leadership success are intellect and stimulation, inspiration, participatory decision-making and setting expectations and rewards. As these attributes were most commonly found in female leaders…it begs the question, why are there so few on the top rung?

So what holds women back?

Compared to their male counterparts, women generally tend to lack self-belief and confidence which leads to a more cautious approach to career opportunities.  And even if they do have these attributes, women are inclined to be too modest about their abilities. This stems from gender conditioning as girls and boys have similar ambitions and attitudes, however, as they go through puberty, girls reduce risk-taking. They work hard and get good results waiting to be picked for the next role and this pattern of behaviour is replicated in the workplace, whilst men put themselves forward for promotion, even if they are not quite up to scratch.  If a man has got 40% of what it takes to do a job, he knows he is ready for the move – a woman will wait until she is pretty much perfect and then think ‘am I ready for this’? These embedded mind sets, both individual and institutional, are all too often one of the most limiting factors in women reaching the top. So a key message at the seminar was to rethink these.  “Done is done enough”, not everything needs to be completed to perfection/100%. Discussion on the day also considered that old adage of stepping out of your comfort zone – suggestions included taking on projects that will really challenge, so taking a risk but with the goal of changing the perception of your colleagues, peers and those at the very top.

Last but by no means least was the group’s recognition of the second generation gender, and even racial, bias which is still so evident in today’s commercial world and the importance of challenging this at the most senior level as and when it is experienced. It is very clear that there is a real onus on women in top level positions to encourage a strong strategic intent to continue to tackle this issue!

With the Davies Review target date of 2015 now less than a year away, it is important to consider that continued action and promotion such as seminars like this Innecto/ResouceBank one, are needed to sustain the cultural shift seen in recent years. A true measure of success will be the continued positive trend of creating more gender balance at board level long past next year’s deadline.