Helping women who want to succeed

As a professional woman, my perception and experience is that if organisations are committed to addressing the low levels of female representation in senior roles, they need to address both cultural and practical issues, with both issues bringing their own challenges. But I think there is an important starting point available.

In a recent Daily Telegraph article, PwC’s Gaenor Bagley talked about her organisation ‘recognising that we need to be braver about challenging our own business about why there aren’t more women looking to come through to partnership’. I was reminded of similar earlier debates about racial equality in the Metropolitan Police, when recruitment did not meet hoped for levels of diversity. While you can view such a debate at a statistical level (although doing so surely reduces the issue to one of compliance, which seems to rather miss the point), I wanted to change one word in Gaenor’s sentence: shouldn’t ‘looking’ really be ‘wanting’?

One solution – and Gaenor’s article is not long enough to explore this aspect of aspiration – is the visibility of female role models. Not only do they remain fewer and further between than might be desired but, as a working mother, they also only rarely provide models that I could achieve or identify with. Or that I might desire to. While I agree with Gaynor that there is a lingering culture of men promoting in their own image – and especially that work to challenge stereotyping is invaluable – countering this culture with what can sometimes look and feel like exceptionalism is only a partial (and hopefully interim) answer.

Her article mostly avoids practical issues, perhaps carefully or perhaps because their root causes lie beyond any individual organisation, but one in particular seemed conspicuously absent: childcare. While she writes about women being seen as ‘a more “risky” choice’, this is explained by their different leadership traits, differently displayed. As a woman – and as a human being and an employee – I’m heartened that gender-stereotyping is being challenged, but also wonder if tacitly labelling some leadership traits as ‘male’ or ‘female’ is a route to pursue. I would prefer a meritocratic approach grounded in empirical evidence, and one that promotes on real, demonstrated leadership ability or potential rather than secondary attributes.

Yet childcare is an issue that, in a social context of (still) differing pay and expectations of family roles, will not be magicked away. For the women and mothers who aspire to leadership roles, these responsibilities are either too difficult or too expensive to dismiss. If their talent and willingness to succeed are matched by a willingness to retain them, organisations can take practical as well as cultural steps that make a significant and more immediate difference: part-time or flexible working that acknowledges school hours, reasonable expectation around flexibility and travel (attending a meeting or a conference at the drop of a hat requires the hat to fall much further if childcare needs to be not just arranged but afforded). While the financial impact may be less significant for those women that have reached the upper tiers, the woman still climbing the organisational ladder may be less fortunately placed.

She may also appreciate other changes of practice: networking opportunities that are not just timed sensitively but which aren’t attached to ‘male pursuits’ – the golf course is just one such example. This approach, I might add, possibly doesn’t work that well already for some men: stereotyping them by equating leadership potential or achievement with sporting interests does them a disservice too. And a culture of presentee-ism is a quietly growing issue for many employees, but for some women rather more pressingly. Whether life should be geared around work or careers should be shaped around lives is not always a philosophical question: sometimes it’s rather more practical, direct and personal.

There’s another aspect where my own experience, and that of female former colleagues, suggests a gap between organisational ‘best practice’ and the actual desires of those it is intended to encourage or support. Women’s networks and leadership programmes aren’t necessarily the best solution. A recent Guardian poll saw 34 per cent vote that they were not needed – although the question might also have asked if they were wanted. While some female commentators are concerned that they are a means to placate rather than promote women, I think two other questions need to be raised. Firstly, is a programme or approach that separates women for development only to return them to the broader system from which they have been separated an effective approach? And secondly, do women necessarily want to be seen as a ‘special group’? Experience tells me that many see such activities as a short-cut to being labelled as ‘the knitting group’ – a rather different, but rather negative aspect of exceptionalism at work. Wouldn’t women prefer to advance on a basis of meritocracy – and to be seen to have done so?

And there is another human truth that sits awkwardly with much of the debate on this topic. As we grow older, our aspirations change. For some women, un-sisterly as it may seem to say so, the arrival of family life changes perspectives: the thriving successful career that may once have seemed all-important may no longer seem so, although voicing or acting on that change of outlook may well be judged as ‘failing’ by several different groups and for quite different reasons. For those women who retain their desire to progress professionally, there are many strategies that can be invaluable in helping them to do so, but let’s not forget that they must be effective for the women as well as the organisation.

Jo Manton, Managing Consultant, ASK Europe plc