Women in the workplace the continuing corporate conundrum

Written by
Janvi Patel

30 Sep 2015

30 Sep 2015 • by Janvi Patel

There is still a long way to go

Any growth is great and should be celebrated, however 23.5% equates to 280 women out of 1,120 total board members, which is still low. Plus after a campaign that has spanned over 4 years, we have added just over 100 women to board positions; so on average 1 women per board which consists on average of 11 board members.  Why is this so hard?  Maybe our starting point should be to get back to the basics of economics of supply and demand; what do women want and what do corporations require, and then create a model that works for both parties.  

Whats driving demand and supply?

Do corporations genuinely want more women in leadership positions? I would say they do and it is not just because of governments and pressure groups, but because corporations see the real value of diversity within business.  Recent studies have shown that women make over 80% of the buying decisions, even when it comes to larger items such as cars and homes.  If over 80% women hold the purse strings, excluding women from making the executive decisions is simply illogical. How can you effectively know what your consumer base wants and needs now and in the future unless that base is actively assisting you to strategize and make decisions?  For businesses to grow they need to be able to look into the future to ensure they are moving with the market.  If management just “hang out” with their own, they are actually closing down those horizons, not growing them; diversity is essential and corporations have accepted this.  

In terms of supply, what do women want and need to actually make it through the ranks?  What is important to note is that apart from the fact that many women want to work and to have a career, the financials of our current economy mean that most women need to work and generate income.  Long gone are the days when families can be supported by a single parent income.  Life has become incredibly expensive and mortgages are exceptionally hard to obtain based on one income families.  So women want and need to work and most women and most working mothers in particular want flexibility and better work/life balance.

Is flexibility enough?

Flexible and part time working has made a difference and from lists like the Power Part Time Top 50, it is clear that part time working does not have the stigma it used to have.  We should acknowledge that most corporations have implemented flexible working and other policies and practices to assist working families. However, after a number of years of flexible working legislation, we are still struggling to hit a basic number of women in leadership and on boards.

It is important to recognise that most business structures, lines of management and corporate value structures were established decades ago and in some cases before the Employment Relations Act 1999, when women were first formally entitled to 18 weeks' paid leave.  These structures were set up for working men who were traditionally supported by their stay at home wives.  

Maybe now that we have this flexibility, we should move to the next stage of our corporation evolution and start looking at how corporate structures are established, how employees undertake their work and also how they are valued, remunerated and promoted within those structures. 

Inspiring the next generation

What’s hard for most women looking to rise up the ranks is to see how much some women in leadership have had to sacrifice to achieve their position. All too often we read stories of senior women who struggle to see their kids during the week and work through the night to have any kind of flexibility. I have absolutely no criticism regarding how other women in business operate.  I wake up at 4am every day to work; there is no judgment at all.  However, for a lot of women, this is not something they want to aspire to.  We all understand that you have to work hard and to prove yourself, but it is the constant, sustained strain that is hard. 

Essentially, if the women at the top look like they have had to sacrifice everything to make it to the top then many will not aspire to follow. If it looks like their skillsets are valued, they have control over their lives and their outputs are measured rather than just hours, there is a better chance of more women wanting to join the existing leadership.  Organisations need to visually demonstrate flexibility and the value change and have role models with sustainable lives that women aspire to.  

We need to start acknowledging that we are in a new world order and the supply and demand of talent needs to be realigned if we really want to encourage more women to stay and grow in the workplace.