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We’ve had a female PM, yet UK boardrooms still lack women. Following the launch of Sheryl Sandberg’s book on the issue, Angela Haggerty investigates whether women are discriminating against themselves.
Since the sex discrimination act was passed in 1975, women have asserted their position in the workplace and moved substantially away from the stereotypes of ‘the old days’. However, there has been little movement at the top, and while there is agreement that there is a problem, nobody seems quite sure what it is, far less how to fix it.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book ‘Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’, has been billed by some as a corporate feminist manifesto, encouraging women to lean in to the boardroom. Millionaire Sandberg has held senior positions at Google, the US Treasury and the World Bank and became the first – and only – woman to grace the board of Facebook. While the release of the book – which sold 140,000 copies in its first week – ignited debate in the US on the lack of women at boardroom level, the outlook in the UK may be even bleaker.
Douglas Kinnaird, managing director of UK recruitment consultancy MacDonald Kinnaird, argues statistics suggest women are discriminating against themselves. “Fifty-three per cent of lawyers graduating are female and 52 per cent of chartered accountants graduating are female,” says Kinnaird. “The response we’ve seen to advertised jobs on average from women over 25 years is 3.7 per cent, so for every 100 applications, only three are female. That tells me that it’s women who discriminate against themselves.”
A Grant Thornton International Business Report on women in senior management showed women hold one in five senior management roles globally, with less than one in 10 businesses having a female chief executive. The UK lagged behind countries such as Brazil, the Philippines, Russia and Japan in the rankings at 20 per cent of women in the country holding senior roles.
While the report put the US slightly behind the UK, CEO of Convertr Media, Mary Keane-Dawson, perceives it differently: “I think the situation in Britain is far worse. The under-representation of women in the boardroom of UK PLC is absolutely appalling and a travesty of wasted talent and insight missing from our businesses.”
If the situation in the UK is broadly not much better, if at all, than the US, the news is even worse for the creative industries. A Creative Skillset report revealed representation of women in general was lower in the creative industries than across the economy as a whole and that they were underpaid, despite being more highly qualified than their male counterparts.
Melina Jacovou, co-founder of Propel London, said: “I can only name a handful of senior women in board-level roles in the digital industry in the UK. I attend a lot of events and it’s really rare to see senior women on the podium and very unusual to hear or see women CEOs or founders, particularly in the ad tech arena.
“There has been a huge reaction to Sheryl Sandberg’s book and her comments that has clearly highlighted the need for discussion around the issues of power positions for women. The majority of senior industry jobs are held by men. It’s a major issue. I hope the next generation of women coming up through the workforce will be the ones to change the imbalance. Research has shown that boards with a mix of women and men produce more effective and creative solutions for businesses.”
The lack of women at a senior level prompted Kinnaird to set up one of the first ever glass ceiling conferences in the country in the 80s and he has been monitoring the outlook ever since. Kinnaird says companies are broadly in agreement that there is a problem even if they can’t pinpoint what it is, but pointed towards the results of an attempt by a British utility company in the 90s to increase the number of senior women.
“A major British utility company put in a positive discrimination policy for a number of years because it felt it was far too much a male orientated organisation,” he says. “After three years it found there was no change whatsoever, so called on a consultancy to find out why, which found three reasons.
“The first was chauvinism; males didn’t want to recruit females but, fascinatingly, females did not want to work for females in some cases. The second was that when a job came up internally, women just didn’t apply. The third reason was that most people who progress in a large company are mentored – senior men simply were not prepared to do that with young women because of potential for gossip, and so women can’t get a mentor.”
A study by the University of Leeds showed that having at least one female board member reduced a business’s chances of folding by 20 per cent. A report from Credit Suisse in July 2012 showed that companies with a market capitalisation of more than $10bn (£6.3bn) and women on their boards did 23 per cent better than those with only men.
“I think there are plenty of extremely talented females in the industry but they are not seen in the same way as their male counterparts,” Keane-Dawson continues. “I also think that some women find the toughness of business very hard to work with in the long term. Business is not about being horrible but you do have to be able to make decisions that sometimes won’t make you popular.
“I find the bitchiness of the language used to describe female leaders pretty disgusting. I believe women in such positions are often seen as a conduit for envy and suspicion, rather than recognised as being where they are because they are right for the role. Many throughout my career have made assumptions that, as a woman, I’m going to be a soft touch. I have always managed to turn their underestimations to my advantage.”
Jacovou agrees there is an issue with women failing to put themselves forward for more senior roles. “I think it’s fair to say that women aren’t usually the first to put themselves forward for opportunities. But I think that’s because men and women have fundamentally different styles. Women are and can be confident, just in a different way, and they need to develop an assertive manner without it being seen negatively.”
Both women agreed with the need for mentors to help women move further up the ladder, and with Sandberg’s view on the importance of support networks to branch out from. “Talk to other women, men, find mentors in your industry, outside your industry,” says Jacovou. “Network at events on your terms, get a support system together with people you trust. It will build confidence, experience and the network will be supportive as your career develops; and you can look forward to mentoring young people coming through the ranks yourself.”
“Find a great coach, and a male one is a good idea if you can’t find a female one you admire and respect,” adds Keane-Dawson, who coaches up and coming senior talent. “Understand how others perceive you and work on ensuring that you are always true to yourself. Keep making decisions that are about moving forward and learn from your mistakes.
“Do not feel guilty for being a success or a failure, just make sure you work with people who believe in making it happen as much as you do.”