International Women’s Day serves as a stark reminder that while progress has been made towards achieving greater parity between men and women in the workplace, it remains frustratingly slow and so much can be achieved.
One of the most rewarding aspects of a PR’s job, is the people we get to work with. Over the last few years I have been in the fortunate position to meet and – in most cases – interview some of the highest profile women in British business and sport.
From Lynda Thomas (Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support) and Aileen Richards (former Executive Vice President of Mars Inc and current Non-Executive Director of the Welsh Rugby Union), to Liz Nicholl CBE (Chief Executive of UK Sport) and more recently Carolyn Fairbairn (Director General of the CBI) each of these women have something in common – an unwavering confidence in what they do, can do and will do.
The global gender pay gap stands at 68% and it will take 217 years to close. But it’s widening – last year it was 170 years (World Economic Forum)
Gender parity is an aspiration we all seek to achieve, but there is no getting away from the fact that diversity between the sexes remains a significant issue. However, it is a challenge that can be overcome.
Seeing is believing
The women mentioned above didn’t have role models whose footsteps they sought to follow. They became the role models themselves for others who could then see what can be achieved.
While some may argue that women lack the confidence to put themselves forward in their careers, a counter suggestion is that “women are more naturally reserved…[they] have a tendency to undersell ambition” (Kate Daly, Amicable).
So, is it a case of a lack of confidence within women themselves, or a lack of confidence that those who are sat in the higher echelons of the organogram have in them? There is zero evidence suggesting that white male business leaders are better at their jobs that women, or those from other under-represented groups.
Indeed, McKinsey’s found that:
Organisations with diverse teams outperform those that don’t by as much as 35%.
Forget the moral imperative for one moment – 35% is a lot of money to be leaving on the table (yet those organisations invariably spend the equivalent on marketing to drive new business…the…logic…is…baffling).
Reset the controls
A change in mindset is required in order to achieve gender parity. Business leaders cannot continue to recruit and appoint in their own image, they need to rethink how they are running their organisations and consider whether it is truly representative of its customer base, of society as a whole. This is precisely what the most senior figure in the British Armed Forces told me too.
During an interview with General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff, I asked him about the “maximising talent” through greater diversity and inclusivity measures he had put in place. He said:
“What I am trying to do is to acknowledge that unless the Army broadens its recruiting base, so that it draws from the whole of British society, then it’s not going to be able to deal with the sorts of challenges and perplexities that are going to come up in the future.
“It’s not good enough that we don’t draw talent from 51% of the population in the numbers that we should do. Ultimately, it’s about maximising all of that opportunity.”
Developing the pipeline
If nothing else, simply considering the business case for having greater female representation at senior level should be enough to effect this change. In doing so, there will be greater visibility of role models for others to emulate. As Aileen Richards said to me in my interview with her:
“It is all very well increasing female representation at Board level, but it needs to be done at executive level too. That is the pipeline – the feeder. Yes, you can parachute women into roles from outside the organisation, but this is usually just a short-term solution and is not sustainable.
“By creating a pipeline of female talent, you then have a pool of top executive female talent that they can delve into when the need arises. Mentoring women and focusing on their development will certainly help. But we shouldn’t get too fixated on quotas – I don’t believe in them.”
Liz Nicholl CBE, chief executive at UK Sport, took this a step further. Speaking with me just weeks before heading off to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, Liz said:
“Diversity in sport, or any sector for that matter, is important. By not having a broader demographic at senior level we are simply missing out on talent.
“Ultimately, if someone thinks you can do the job, don’t hold yourself back. If you don’t apply, you’re simply doing the job of the selection panel – let them make the tough calls, not you.”
There remains a lack of visibility of what can be achieved by women across all walks of life. But on this International Women’s Day we shouldn’t be banging the drum for equality for the sake of fairness. It needs to serve as call to action for business leaders to recognise both the talent they need to bring into their organisations and the support they need to provide to develop that which they already have.
Gender parity should have nothing to do with organisations seeking to bolster their employer brand. Nor should it be seen as a tick-box exercise to pacify stakeholders. It simply makes good business sense and more important, it is the right thing to do.
At the same time, there needs to be a recognition of the fact that men and women are different – thank God! I mean, if the sexes shared the same traits, we’d be one seriously dull society with an underachieving economy.