Why is it that for decades we have been struggling with the question of women in leadership roles in organisations? We know that the balance is around 50:50 males : females at entry level into organisations, yet with every level of management, the proportion of females drops.
According to Cranfield’s annual survey, companies are responding to the government targets (25% representation on boards by 2015) and FTSE 100 companies have increased the number of women on their board from 12.5% in 2011 to 20.7% today, with the FTSE 250 similarly improving from 7.8% to 15.6%.
Cranfield also note considerable efforts and a significant change of mindset from other key players such as investors, executive search firms and business leaders – all working together to bring about real change. Within the FTSE 100, 98% of boards now include women. This is a considerable turnaround from where 1 in 5 boards were all male in 2011. The FTSE 250 also shows improving numbers of women in leadership with around 50 all male boards today, down by well over half on 3 years ago.
Why does it take such a concerted effort to achieve what logically could happen naturally – a balance of women in leadership?
Clearly the female’s biological function as a mother is one reason for this, but the statistics show increasing numbers of women who are childless. Latest estimates suggest that 25% of women in Britain of childbearing age will never have a baby. The proportion of women without children has almost doubled since the ‘90s, according to the Office for National Statistics, with one in five 45-year-olds yet to start a family. Overseas, one in five American women in their early forties is childless, rising to a third of women in the same age bracket in Germany and Japan.
It is not automatic that these women aspire to senior management in their careers, but the statistics do show sociological change. The Minister for Culture, Maria Miller (recently stepped down), identified that current work structures were designed by men for men and have not been updated over the decades. This means that women are judged by men’s standards and have to fight to be seen as strong leaders. So it may be that it is men that need to change their attitudes more than women need to prove themselves capable of senior roles.
What will equality really look like?
So that we can expect to see women fully represented including a balance of women in leadership:
I suggest we all need to take pre-judgment and bias out of the frame.
Expect good contributions from every individual and take each contribution seriously. Fundamentally we all need to listen to each individual, ask questions to work towards solutions and work in a collaborative style.
When the focus is on results rather than inputs, we can take a number of constraints out of the mix (such as managing hours to fit in other responsibilities).
Those results need to be considered as a balanced scorecard, not just on the task – is the leader building capability in the team? Is s/he living continuous improvement and innovation? What do the long-term financial results look like?
If we take the politics out of organisations, I suggest that women will find their place, because people will be in roles they deserve to be in due to their performance and potential. When the focus is on performance, there will be increased willingness to accept flexibility in how those results are achieved, which will help with multiple responsibilities and allow men and women to take care of non-work responsibilities without their career suffering. This will naturally encourage women in leadership roles.
However to achieve these we need to start again with a blank sheet and redesign how work works, so it works for all, not just for men. The political patterns are well embedded and that is why it is taking so long to achieve more women in leadership. There is a huge cultural change to achieve and all parties need to change their thinking and behaviour to create an equal playing field.
In working with aspiring leaders, one of the things that resonates most with them is to be authentic in their leadership style. This is true of both men and women, both feel obliged to ‘play the game’ , so now is the time to stop ‘playing the game’ and start being true to self. As each aspiring leader does this, so we will break down the old culture and build a new culture of equality.
There is no quick fix, we know that because it is already 40 years since the Equal Pay Act and yet inequality in pay is still the norm. The Equality Act of 2010 pulls all previous legislation together, let us implement that Act fully so that women and men are treated equally and we will find women in leadership positions as a matter of course, not an exception.