This, needless to say, is a good thing. Yet even today there remain numerous arenas, industries and sectors in which women view failure as almost inevitable.
STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is an obvious example. Businesses, policymakers and educators alike have given plenty of thought to this enduring quandary, but definitive solutions are still elusive.
The difficulty derives in part from the fact that often only half the story is considered. Understanding why so many women continue to dismiss STEM as a non-starter is helpful, but we also need to grasp why other women not only take the plunge but ultimately prosper.
This was one of the objectives of a study I co-authored a few months ago with Professor Joanne Duberley, of Birmingham Business School, and Dr Dulini Fernando, of Warwick Business School. Working with individuals and focus groups reflecting all stages of career progression, we set out to discover why some women engineers succeed.
Our respondents worked in technical and managerial roles for three leading FTSE 100 organisations – the first a global supplier of fuel, energy, lubricants and petrochemicals, the second a world-leading engine-maker and the third a luxury car manufacturer owned by a multinational automotive company.
This gave us an excellent overview of a sector perhaps more varied and multifaceted than many people might imagine. I also believe, though, that the lessons that emerged are applicable far beyond the confines of STEM. Let’s look at five key themes and how they relate both to women employees everywhere and to the work of HR professionals in any sphere.
1. Work-life balance
Our respondents fully acknowledged the importance of family life, yet they felt it should remain in the background. They saw it as a constraint on career advancement and as a major reason to quit.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that employers reject family-friendly policies. Many organisations champion greater flexibility. But respondents frequently voiced the concern that promotion is still linked to the supposed merits of ever-presence and time-serving and that a highly visible family life isn’t conducive to either of these “qualities”.
Our respondents consistently highlighted the value of seeing tasks through and not giving up in the face of adversity. For many it wasn’t enough simply to have determination: it was essential to show it as well.
This often translated into seizing chances to undertake more challenging projects. Opportunities to experience harder work and to increase corporate visibility were welcomed. An appetite for long hours and a bent for perseverance were seen as crucial to giving the impression of being able to “cut it” in a male-dominated environment.
Our most successful respondents had mentors or sponsors – bosses or senior colleagues who took an interest in their careers, counselled them on important decisions, assisted them in making useful contacts and helped them understand how their organisations worked.
Unfortunately, others offered less happy accounts. Some spoke of being regarded as different and even professionally “risky”. Only when they had proved themselves could they find a senior male colleague to take them on – by which time, at least in some instances, the need for mentoring had passed anyway.
Social relationships are crucial to women’s career-making in every profession. Many of our respondents described managing their interactions to raise their profiles, publicise their own successes and be “team players”.
It’s worth noting, however, that informal networking poses problems for many women. For some the difficulties are strictly practical; for others it’s a question of legitimacy. After-hours networking in particular demands a delicate balancing act between the promise of professional benefit and the risk of reputational damage.
5. Succeeding on merit
Perhaps the most significant message to emerge from our research was that women want to succeed on merit. This has considerable implications for the role of diversity and inclusion initiatives, which many of our respondents rejected as unnecessary and unhelpful.
Most of the women we interviewed, especially those of junior rank and/or limited experience, were indisposed towards “favours”. They preferred to move up the ladder on the strength of their capabilities rather than on the basis of an organisational zeal for ticking boxes or meeting quotas. All were especially scathing of being singled out as needing “remedial” assistance.
Taken together, these findings underline the value of meritocracy. This is something of which sight is too easily lost when attempting to navigate the deceptive waters that lie between genuine equality and positive discrimination. A sentiment often expressed by our respondents was that any guidance, boost or sponsorship should be seen not as a selective “favour” but as a benefit for all.
Points 1, 2, 3 and 4 above show the sacrifices women are required and prepared to make. Point 5 reminds us how all of that hard work can be cheapened – if not wholly undone – by well-intentioned but misguided schemes from on high. Diversity and inclusion initiatives have their place, but the bottom line is that nothing beats competence – and women appreciate institutional recognition of that vital truth.