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Why aren’t there more women in senior leadership roles?

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I was lucky enough to be brought up by strong female and male role models that encouraged me and didn’t allow me to restrict my career ambition.

It was only when I entered the world of work that I realised there were barriers in place due to my gender.

It is sad and frustrating to read articles that once again prove we are so far away from gender parity. A recent article from Sky News reported only 1 in 25 of CEO’s in Britain’s largest publicly listed companies are women. Despite entry level recruitment often being close to 50:50, according to analysis conducted by gender and diversity consultancy firm, The Pipeline.

More needs to be done, to understand where the issue stems from and what we can do to be part of the solution. Paving the way for future female leaders to succeed and move a step closer to gender parity.

Why are there so few women executives?

To understand why there are so few women in senior leadership roles we need to look earlier in their career. 56% of university applications are from women in the US. Women looking to better themselves, gain qualifications and make their mark in the working world. So what happens to them? Where do they go? Why are there so few women executives or managers?

The pandemic has a lot to answer for. With women suffering 54% of job losses, and 61.5% of women with children aged 12 and under saying they took on the majority, or the entirety of domestic and caring work compared to just 22.4% of fathers. It’s easy to see how working women’s careers took a backseat over the past 2.5 years.

For women looking to re-enter the workforce there’s a wall of discrimination and bias that can prevent them from doing so.

Latest figures show41% of women worry their gender is a barrier to finding a new job. For those at an early stage of their career it’s particularly challenging with potential employers harbouring thoughts about further career breaks, families and caring responsibilities. With more traditional caring roles emerging throughout the pandemic there’s a reinforced feeling that a woman’s role is at home, mix that with comments from high profile individuals such as Donald Trump and the rhetoric has detrimental consequences for women in the workplace.

What prejudice and challenges face women in the workplace?

As a woman and a leader I find it difficult to break down the prejudice and challenges facing working women. Firstly, every woman has a different experience and will have her own story, narrative and perspective. Secondly, I struggle to understand why we’re still in this position.

There’s no doubt that compared to men there are significant barriers for women to overcome. For me it breaks down into two areas. Gender and age issues and then societal beliefs.

Gender and age discrimination

There’s a term for this - gendered ageism. It’s where gender discrimination and ageism come together to create an imperfect storm for women. As women get older they’re viewed as less competent and intelligent than their male counterparts. This is particularly applicable if they’ve taken a career break to raise children.

Research found that “if ageism is undoubtedly problematic for older workers’ identify processes, ageism and gender-stereotypes represent a double risk for women over 50 in the workplace.” There’s an assumption that older women aren’t worthy of a promotion, aren’t capable of doing their job and that they’re coasting their way to retirement. This is a huge challenge for leaders, as ultimately a culture change is needed and that’s not an easy thing to do.

Societal beliefs

I’ve already mentioned the rise of “traditional” beliefs spurred on by the pandemic. Women taking on more traditional caring roles, vocal high-profile individuals like Andrew Tate and Donald Trump with an anti-feminist agenda, the introduction of laws directly impacting women’s rights and a rise in online violent misogyny has undoubtedly impacted societal beliefs.

In 2020, a study showed that even though typically it’s the younger generations that have more progressive views, half of the young men surveyed felt that feminism has gone “too far”.

These beliefs and attitudes are making social bias towards women more acceptable and that undoubtedly impacts the barriers faced in the workplace.

Why the gender balance matters

Women make up half the population. That’s why it matters. When you dismiss or hold women back, you’re ostracising half the working population. Not only that but according to House of Commons research, companies with more female leaders outperform those dominated by men.

It’s not just company performance and profits that improve with a female leader. Research has found that employees, regardless of gender, are happier with their career, more engaged, stay in their positions longer and recommend their workplace to others. Not only that, hiring women in non-traditional roles can increase productivity by as much as 25%.

Gender balance has a far greater impact than on one individual. The benefits are felt at a micro and macro level with top performing companies boosting the economy. That’s why it’s such a hard pill to swallow, because with happier employees, more productive businesses, higher profit levels there isn’t a downside, so why is there still so much resistance?

What can businesses do to support more women into senior leadership roles?

It’s clear that businesses have a role to play in supporting and encouraging women into senior leadership roles. I have worked hard during my career to break through the barriers, this has not been easy and it didn’t always work. Now that I am in a leadership role, I am conscious that I have the responsibility to help and support women to achieve their career aspirations, a role that I don’t take lightly. I want my daughter to be able to forge her path in life. To not be held back due to her gender and to be a trailblazer in whatever field and role that she chooses.

Both male and female leaders need to work together to build gender parity and to take responsibility to develop a diverse and inclusive workforce. It’s only by leaders working together and leading by example that changes will happen.

How do we make it happen?

Pay audit

Equal work for equal money. It has to be the starting point. Conducting a pay audit across your existing staff to ensure parity regardless of gender and then making the necessary adjustments has to happen. Women shouldn’t be at a disadvantage financially because of their gender. Among full-time employees in the UK the gender pay gap was8.3%, up from 7.7% last year. It’s our duty to close that gap in our businesses, and from a retention perspective your business will benefit from it.

Mentorship & internal networks

Women need to be encouraged from a young age, to be told anything is possible, to have career aspirations and to be given the support and belief that they can achieve whatever they set their minds on.

In the workplace this means support networks, mentorship, training and development opportunities have to be in place for every woman to access.

It’s been found that women CEOs were nearly twice as likely as men to be an outside appointment, despite research finding internal CEO candidates perform better over time. Demonstrating the importance of an internal support network when it comes to promotion opportunities at a senior level.

Lead by example

Pipeline found that companies with a female CEO were over four times more likely to appoint women onto their board. If you’re serious about gender parity in the workplace it’s crucial to lead by example. Appoint women, promote women and support women for success.

Flexible working

Women need to be given the flexibility when needed to ensure they are able to reach their potential. This means a culture of flexible working, supporting working mothers, and policies that level the playing field.

With the UK government giving all employees the right to flexible working from day one, it’s time to make the changes needed in your business for it to be the rule, not the exception. It also means asking women in your business what they need to succeed and acting on that feedback.

As I reach the end of this, I feel frustrated in the step back that we’ve seen over the past few years. There’s no doubt in my mind that the pandemic has had a detrimental effect on the number of women in leadership roles and that we’ll be feeling the consequences for years to come. But what gives me hope is there are women in senior leadership roles pushing to make changes. We have research proving the undeniable benefits of female leaders and there is slowly a shift being made towards flexible working.

There isn’t a magic wand to change the situation, instead there are a series of small steps every business can take to create their own environment where women can flourish and grow their career aspirations and achievements.