A Lack of Females at the Top: How Do We Explain it to Our Daughters? - Runneth London

My clever, confident, 5-year-old daughter started school recently and I’m enjoying watching her run (well, walk sensibly) into her classroom filled with equal numbers of boys and girls.  It feels like a level playing field.  It IS a level playing field.  Each child has the phenomenal potential to learn, grow, develop and achieve. My daughter is naturally competitive and confident, and she will give anything a go.  It would never occur to her that she couldn’t, or shouldn’t, do something as well as, if not better than, the boys around her.  And nor should it.    

When I attended primary school some 30-plus years ago, it was the same for me.  We were taught that girls could do anything and we believed it.  We lived it. We studied hard. We went to university. We got good jobs. We felt privileged that we had more opportunities than our mothers.  But how many of us have actually reached our true potential within our careers?

Back then I would never have predicted that thirty years later, I would find myself poring over reports discussing the lack of female representation in senior management across all sectors of industry.

“We were taught that girls could do anything and we believed it.”

“Cracking the Code” was prepared in 2014, commissioned by the 30% Club, KPMG and YSC (a leadership consultancy), to explore the myths and realities surrounding the lack of female representation within the executive pipeline in large companies.   The 30% Club was formed in 2010, recognising that better gender balance leads to better results, and launched a campaign with a goal of achieving a minimum of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards by 2020.

“Revisiting the Executive Pipeline” is the 2016 follow-up report, looking at what has changed in the two years since “Cracking the Code” was published.  The upshot is that not a great deal has changed, but there are some small improvements to be noted.  Small increases in female representation, between 2% and 4%, were observed in each of the four levels of management below the Executive Committee.

But the number of women on Executive Committees is still low, at 18%, with no change between 2014 and 2016.  Those who sit on an Executive Committee are the most powerful in any organization, they have the authority to make decisions and ensure those decisions are carried out – it goes without saying that we need more women at this level.

Image source: KPMG 2016 Report ‘Revisiting the Executive Pipeline’

So, what are the barriers preventing more women rising to the top? The KPMG report explores some of the commonly cited reasons which it describes as ‘myths’ and attempts to debunk them.

Myth 1: Women don’t stick it out to make it to the top

The KPMG research shows that women are heavily invested in their careers but would-be senior female executives will vote with their feet – if they don’t feel supported, they will leave to find better environments and opportunities for career progression.  This is understandable, however, it doesn’t explain why they’re then not making it to the top in the new organisations they join.

Myth 2: Child-rearing stops women getting to the top

Personally I’m not convinced that this is a myth or that it can be debunked.  The KPMG report states “Gender is a bigger blocker than parenting to career progression.  But child-rearing certainly complicates things.”  Sounds like an understatement to me!

According to the online support forum ‘Pregnant Then Screwed’, 54,000 women in the UK are forced out of their jobs every year when they become pregnant, and more are demoted, harassed or not put forward for promotion.   In contrast, the Head of Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance and Diversity in Research, Curt Rice, describes a study that demonstrates a ‘fatherhood bonus’ – that when a man becomes a father, he is more likely to be promoted or given a pay rise than his male colleagues who are not fathers.

Increased uptake of shared parental leave, flexible working arrangements and more affordable childcare are needed to help redress the childcare and work/home life imbalances.

Myth 3: Women lack leadership skills

I believe this is an outdated, misogynistic belief that has no place in modern society.  The KPMG report states that more could be done to showcase how women bring complementary leadership qualities that are much needed and welcomed at the top of organisations.  A better gender balance is a necessary first step to bring about changes to team dynamics and for women to feel supported and confident in putting themselves forward for leadership roles.

“Mummy, boys know more than girls.”

These reports focus on executives in large corporate organisations, but a lack of female representation at the top affects all industries, even those traditionally dominated by women, such as hairdressing.  In the UK, around 80% of hairdressers are female and yet, in the past 10 years, no woman has won the top award at the British Hairdressing Awards.  Is the quality of their work truly inferior to that of their male counterparts?  Speaking on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, Karine Jackson, Chancellor of The Fellowship for British Hairdressing, said that she believes it’s because women don’t tend to brag about their achievements, so they’re not being noticed or nominated.

In April 2016, Polygraph analysed the scripts of 2,000 films and found that women aged between 42 and 65 are given fewer speaking roles than younger females, while men in that age bracket are represented more than their younger male counterparts. On average, women are given just 32% of speaking parts in films, with 68% of the dialogue going to the men.  The scary thing is that most of us don’t even notice this under-representation when watching a film: it has become normalised.

“Show our girls that they are capable – that they are worthy of being leaders.”

HR policies and business cases for gender diversity are all well and good but it is evident that these are not having any significant effect.  The 2016 KPMG report acknowledges that innovative and radically new approaches are required.

So, what does this all mean for my 5-year-old?  She announced recently, out of the blue “Mummy, boys know more than girls.”  It was half-question and half-statement but it stopped me in my tracks.  I hid my shock while I calmly inquired as to where she’d heard that, why did she think that? She said “because Daddy says he knows everything!” And because I never make such ridiculous claims, she had concluded that boys know more than girls. I laughed and firmly set the record straight.

On the one hand, I was relieved that is was only her father messing about rather than something she had heard at school, but on the other hand I found it quite startling.    We hear so often that women don’t back themselves, and that men are far happier singing their own praises. So, while I know he was joking, it was disturbing to think that our daughter had absorbed his comments and drawn her own conclusions, comparing his claims with my more realistic version (“of course I don’t know everything”). It was such a simple thing, with no malice intended, but how many times have we, or our children, formed our views based on something as seemingly minor as this?

“We can make changes.  At home.  At school.  At family get-togethers and on play-dates.”

How can we effect significant changes at the top, among the policy makers?  There is hope on the horizon.  In 2015 the Women’s Equality Party was formed to address the inequality that UK women face at home, at work, in politics and in public life.  They have yet to successfully gain representation in parliament but are already bringing issues such as the gender pay gap and affordable childcare to the attention of the other political parties.  Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London and self-proclaimed feminist has launched an action plan for a gender pay gap audit across the Greater London Authority empire, including Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police.

Political and policy changes at the top won’t happen overnight.  So what can we do in the meantime, especially for those of us who aren’t politically active?

We can make changes at the bottom.  At home.  At school.  At family get-togethers and on play-dates.  As women, we need to be role models, showing what it is to be positive, capable and confident.  We need to catch other people when they don’t show us in a positive light around our children, even when it seems minor. Little things add up.

Show our girls that they are capable – that they are worthy of being leaders – so that they don’t doubt themselves when they are older.  Talk to them about the successful women we know and those we don’t know.  Raise aspirations. Challenge the everyday sexism that we encounter.  Show them that they know just as much as the boys, and give them the confidence to say so.  By speaking about it, we create awareness, and through awareness, the ability to change. From the bottom up and, hopefully, increasingly from the top down too.

It would be nice to think that this won’t be an issue when our daughters enter the workforce but there is a lot of work to do.  When I told my husband what our daughter had said about boys knowing more than girls, he was mortified.   I smiled to myself when I overheard them chatting recently to hear him say “Daddy knows a lot…but so does Mummy.”

It’s a small step. But one in the right direction.

Image credit: LeviLily Photography

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