Next year is the reckoning date for the Davies report, which called for a minimum of 25 per cent female representation on FTSE 100 boards. But what about the state of play for women working for the countries SMEs and growing businesses – how will they be impacted?
Whilst a CBI report found that the growth of female managers was stable, but not rising, in the UK, leaving companies short of leadership-ready women. If we reflect on the debate around women in business over the past 12 months, the key trends for gender diversity in 2014 and beyond emerge.
More flexible career cycles for women
There’s been a lot of focus around the twinned issue of returnships and the so-called ‘mommy track’, widely acknowledged as the biggest single reason for women’s careers being derailed.
Then there’s the uncomfortable truth about so-called ‘mother guilt’, as highlighted by Indra Nooyi, Pepsico’s first female CEO, who confessed that while her career flourished, she may not have made the best mother.
A female PwC partner recently observed that no-one will ever love leaving their children for work. But there are more practical ways of addressing the guilt question: maternity coaching, ‘keep in touch’ days, or, for the energetic, a whole new career. And what about the notion of embracing a longer-term, cyclical career arc for women?
Next year: It’s been a long time coming, but we need a far more visible commitment to flexible working practices and an acknowledgement that working mothers will have a different career cycle to the ‘norm’. Each business has to do what works best for it, but to take a wholesale ‘no flex’ approach of Yahoo! is to limit your chances in the war for talent.
Mind the confidence gap
Are women naturally less confident than men? According to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Gap, nurture, rather than nature, makes women more prone to ‘the imposter syndrome’. Of course, not everyone agreed with this, but it certainly raises the issue of how to deal with women’s under-confidence.
Next year, I’d rather see more effort put into addressing the potential causes of under-confidence, starting in education, through sponsorship and mentor programmes. But at the same time, remember that the financial meltdown proved just how dangerous rampant over-confidence can be, so a little self-doubt is no bad thing.
Science, technology, engineering and maths remain staunchly male bastions, and with them the so-called STEM industries. With the exception of Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, just about every other cutting-edge digital business looks like a dinosaur when it comes to board-level equality, while tech startups seem to positively encourage frat-boy behaviour.
The problem, of course, starts in the education system. And while some tech firms have actively sought to rectify hiring and promotional prospects for women, women still seem to be reluctant to study STEM subjects beyond school.
Campaigns such as Like a Girl and the sterling work of the likes of Girl Geeks should go a long way to helping the next generation of girls to see engineering as a viable career path.
Next year: Needs are likely to trump prejudices here: as digital knowledge becomes a pre-requisite for new hires, companies will have to look beyond the usual white men for their geek contingent. As more female entrepreneurs such as Elizabeth Holmes make successes of STEM-centric companies, girls will have more and diverse role models to emulate.
2014 was the year the mainstream media embraced the notion of mindfulness as a leadership tool. Let’s hope this is a sign that the aggressive, charismatic, command and control stereotype has finally outlived its welcome.
Businesses are increasingly acknowledging alternative styles of leadership – perhaps influenced in this by women and men from different cultures. Mindfulness training has become common in large businesses, while Carol Dweck of Stanford talked about a ‘growth mindset’.
Next year: ‘Soft power’ brokers may have begun to influence leadership behaviour in some sectors, but there’s a way to go before our default ‘masculine’ image of a leader changes.
Stereo-types have had their day
Bias experts highlighted for us the subtle but important influence of language on how we perceive ambition in women and prompted Sheryl Sandberg to launch a ‘ban bossy‘ campaign. Why, when a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader”, yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy”?
Meanwhile, you only have to look at the corrosive effect of Twitter trolls to see how damaging language can be.
Words such as ‘empathy’ and ‘humility’ have crept into the leadership lexicon, but we can’t seem to agree on ‘gravitas’ – is it indicative of white, middle-aged men or a necessary quality for ‘executive presence’?
Equal means the men too
Finally, remember that our failure to include men in workplace diversity initiatives has proven a mistake. If a certain tick-box weariness has begun to creep into gender diversity initiatives, it’s probably because half the workplace wasn’t included. As the 30% Club has demonstrated, having male allies who want the same things as women is all the more powerful.
Next year: Let’s face it, millennial men and women want largely the same things from work – chief among them being flexibility. Their expectations may help re-shape career arcs for both sexes. But we can’t just wait till the ‘old guard’ retires: workplaces need to focus more on inclusive behaviour for all and less on an ‘us and them’ mentality.
Neela Bettridge is an executive coach & sustainability mentor who blends sustainability, materiality, strategy, integral leadership, megatrends and strategic vision into a technique she calls “conscious leadership”. She coaches leaders of all kinds, be they men or women, who need to increase presence, impact and communication to help them step up into their next role. More at: www.neelabettridge.com