I chose not to make this post on Women’s Day, which took place a few weeks ago. This is not an easy topic to discuss, it’s so fraught with judgement and opinion that people of reputation don’t like taking it on. So I’d like to strike a deal with you. I will keep it as short as possible, and focus on the practical, and you will make it to the end?
It has now been over 5 years since the crisis took effect. I would estimate that you have found pretty much every efficiency going. Streamlined every possible process, outsourced, in-sourced, off-shored, or established ever more effective ways of servicing clients. There isn’t a lot more you can do. The trouble is you can’t significantly increase the bottom line without also increasing your investment, and this isn’t happening enough anywhere.
Changing the equation
What if I told you that your organisation wasn’t as meritocratic as you thought? Those with some of the best ideas in your team weren’t going to share them, and large numbers of people with the most potential to impact change, won’t be putting themselves up for the job?
Even the brightest, sharpest women are on the whole much less likely to put themselves forwards. Young women out-perform young men on leaving university in most developed countries around the world (UK, Australia, USA, Europe) but we never know what they will be capable of in the world of work, because they never get far enough. While we consider it great that our girls excel at school, we don’t encourage them enough after that, and they don’t achieve as much as they are capable of. This is not an issue caused by men; it is inadvertently caused by all of us. And it affects all of us, because if we only have access to just over half the able population, our future leaders will only be half as good. It’s just averages.
Global Chief Executives rank the shortage of senior talent as their top concern, even above global competition andinnovation. Nationally and internationally, there is a huge shortage of the kind of talent needed to drive organisations forwards. It is a significant business risk. We need to re-think our approach.
But women are in the workplace, aren’t they?
Yes they are, but they are late to the party, and it causes issues. Women seek acceptance more, and are less confident than men. They raise their hands less; they tend to self-censor themselves more. Why? Because in evolutionary terms, this whole independence thing, is actually brand new. Just because we have got the pill and the vote in the last 80 years, it’s naïve to assume that the millennia of years in evolution have simply been erased from our collective subconscious. They haven’t. Women are far more self-depreciating than men. I have watched as top women undersell themselves in interviews, and be far more honest about their limitations. It’s not that men don’t have them!
If we are to get more women to make it to senior management level, we need to show them a bit more encouragement at lower levels. It is not that women are less qualified, but they almost always more honest. They have to work harder to convince. Women have a harder time convincing management they deserve pay rises, they have to prove themselves more.
Real equality would mean a basic understanding of this difference and working to bring female confidence up to speed, specifically inviting female input and discussion, and being more open-minded when women voice their limitations. Let’s be clear, women are starting with a late start, these are the types of advantages men have built their confidence on for generations.
The success Vs likeable scale
Women are not always liked for being high achievers. In the Howard /Heidi study, when venture capitalist Heidi Roizen’s CV was presented with a male name it had much more positive impact than her own (female) one. Readers would much rather work with ‘Howard’ over Heidi, although the CVs were exactly the same. The more driven she was perceived, the more the control group disliked her, while ‘Howard’, was respected more for his drive. Where women are perceived to be clever in business, we find it harder to trust them than men. This is not logical. Women leaders are either perceived as competent or likeable, rarely both. We need to get over this way of thinking. We still feel that a businesswoman is probably a bit of a shark. There is an interesting caveat to this. When women become very successful, they surpass this barrier and are held in very high regard, attracting almost iconic status. Suddenly their sex is beneficial. Indicative of the uncommon surprise that they have made it.
Tipping the scales
We need to make it easier for women to be who they are, driven if they want, without the social stigma. We need to empower them to believe they can handle a career as well as a family, if they so wish. It is a much harder job being a woman in business, not just because it’s harder to get anywhere, but because with every decision that you make for your career, you feel you have to justify it against your family. Both in society and in your head.
How can you keep moving forwards when you have all that weight pulling you back?
The answer is you can’t, and many women don’t. Their progression isn’t quick enough and the flexibility at work isn’t there. What else do we expect them to do? Most women take the back seat, believing their chances of happiness are higher in promoting the career of their partner. I don’t dispute that in many instances this works, but there are also many where it doesn’t, and both parties are left unfulfilled and unhappy.
Not only are we are losing future female leaders, we are putting men in a position of considerable strain, when actually reversing the roles, or creating a balance of equality, where both parties can use their best skills, would create more happiness and more life choice, empowering men to be full-time fathers if this suits them. Don’t you think that sounds better than house-husband? They are not under house-arrest!
Kids vs Career
Young women start thinking about this before they even get near the world of work, in their early 20s or even before. High-potential women leave their paths before anyone knows what they are capable of. They don’t even start to think they can make it work, and that’s why we have a shortage of women on our Boards today. I had these thoughts once, but being from a family of 5 great women, it made me do the opposite. I started my business because I realised this was the only way I could have the job I wanted AND the family life I wished for. I am not alone. In the last 2 years over 49% of all retail, leisure, hotel and catering businesses started in the UK, are majority female-owned.
Not all women have this option. Not all men feel comfortable taking parental leave.
I absolutely do not suggest that all women need to have careers, having a career in the home is a dream for many women (and men!) I only suggest that we need to make it more acceptable for the more career-minded ladies to be invited to step forwards. Let’s stop judging people by their roles in relation to their family – it’s private!
Neither men nor women like the word feminism. Men feel attacked by it, and do not wish to upset women. Women equally don’t ascribe to man-bashing; they are our partners, friends, colleagues. So we avoid it. Though looking around at senior levels of management, we are not getting anywhere are we? Feminism doesn’t mean we hate men, it means we would like to correct the inequality that exists between the sexes, and it’s a fallacy to believe we are there yet; we have more work. This is the kind of work that you can’t see, because it is in our heads and hearts. It is buried way deeper than our usual thoughts.
Not just men, but also other women, who think they don’t have gender bias, are simply not used to seeing accomplished women in our society. One more readily questions, and more easily assumes females in positions of authority have got there based on their looks, social standing, education, or connections. I know, because even I have done it. And it is plain wrong. Women are interrupted more frequently by both men, and other women. Women have to work much harder to prove their ability is real. We need to stop this and give women a fair chance. Good businesswomen deserve the benefit of the doubt, not cynicism. It is naïve to you don’t have a gender blind spot. Be aware of yours.
Watch the gap
In professional firms, in the developed world, I actually don’t believe there exists the same pay gap between the sexes as there used to be, in comparing the same positions. But I do believe there is a gap of another kind.
A few years ago I started to notice that in teams where there were men and women managing at the same level, many of the women seemed to be out-performing the men, sometimes significantly. I am not saying women are better managers. Having seen this many times over the years (I have spent my career recruiting in finance) I have realised that it isn’t that the men were performing badly, they were actually performing well; it’s that the women were performing very well indeed. In fact, women were and are, not being promoted quickly enough when they are going beyond their role and getting results. There isn’t a pay gap, but there is a promotion gap, and it’s quite large.
Houston, we have a problem
If the good (female) managers we have are not being promoted through the system, where will our future board members come from? If we don’t promote these women now, our talent pool will be smaller in 10-20 years’ time. Without bridging this gap now, we limit our choices later. Don’t overlook a future director for the sake of a 6 month maternity leave.
Fear of the 30s, dreaded maternity leave, and ‘oh god!’ flexible working hours
The elephant in the room is obviously the act of childbearing. Until now, as far as I know, we haven’t yet found a way for men to do this job. Until we do, we basically have two choices. Hire, promote, and retain mainly men around the age of 25-35, or consider a little flexibility, and get the best possible people into your organisation and ultimately, onto your management board. You will have a balanced business, make better decisions, and be less likely to take the kind of risks that resulted in the last financial crisis. Good idea, no? Yes, that will cost you a little bit more in the interim, and yes, you will have to think a bit about it, but get the right team in place and it will pay dividends. I can tell you from years of head-hunting that women are more loyal to their employers than men. Investing in female management is a very wise move.
It is not just in these women’s interests to keep them on-board. It is in all our interests, because a true meritocracy will produce better governments, research facilities, businesses, a better World. It is precisely the time when women start showing their potential that we start to see them disappear. We must make it more attractive for them to stay, and create structures where they can. Not only is this better for business, it is also more lucrative for all of us, and will achieve more success.
Having ‘the conversation’
We need to find a way to communicate. Both parties need to plan – as far as they can – and the situation could be hugely improved with honesty and trust which must be built by both. You cannot assume every woman will take full maternity leave, and therefore avoid promoting them. Even if a woman were to take leave, would it really be such a loss? We are talking about a few months, in careers that could last 10 years or more. Businesses are losing some of their best minds, and our women are losing promotions both before and after they come back. We skip women who would be at Director-level soon, and we don’t get them back. Ironically this happens right about the time that women can really offer high levels of professional value.
Technology and the equal opportunity
This is the time to start looking at the way we work and harnessing the power of new technology. Even at fairly junior management level, a huge amount of work can be done from home, conference calls, VPNs, Face time. Half of these things are free. Try something new, and trust your colleague. Build a relationship, just as you would your client. You may ask; if you can’t trust your team, how do you know they will work well from home? You don’t! That doesn’t mean flexible working doesn’t work; it means you have the wrong people.
Talented women everywhere, we need you!
We really do. If you would like to make a go of having a career and kids, find an employer who values you, and give them 100%. Show them you are serious about your future and build trust with them. Ideally, discuss some subtle indicators and measure a few early responses. Trust is everything. Do not erase this Trust with your employer as far as you can. Ideally you should not drop your employer with a 12 month maternity leave request completely out of the blue. It may not be an easy thing to digest, especially for smaller companies. While you may be within your rights, remember how hard it is to manage a business. Unless your role was ineffective, they will miss you.
Employers handling parental leave
If you would like to hire/promote someone but you are worried they will take leave, tell them openly what you think their potential is. Showing them their path will help to ensure their plans fit with yours. Do not over-burden them and make them feel bad about going on parental leave, as this will probably ensure that they don’t come back. Good people are hard to find. Do the opposite, communicate, keep them on-side and keep an open relationship strong. Just as with any hire, if the fit is not there and they are not committed, there is always a chance they may leave, this is NOT a gender issue.
Maternity leave not mental leave
Keep in touch with your colleagues. Just because they are away it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. If they are high-performers, they are likely to want to be kept abreast of projects. That could mean a simple call every couple of months, just to stay in touch. Give them a little of your time, it will make them feel more sure about returning, good for them and good for you.
Time for change
In my job I am regularly seeing an impact on a large scale in our organisations, indicating an inability to change fast enough. The impact of having a shortage of women in leading roles in our companies, governments, institutions, is negatively affecting all of us. It is time for change. It will take work on all sides, but I believe this is a secret win-win-win situation. That wasn’t a typo. Companies win, women win, men win, we all do. With or without the f-word, whatever you want to call it.
In time for this blog, I’ve introduced a new comments section below. If you like this blog, please share it! We need some fresh thought on this!
For my topic next month, world peace. 🙂