Moving the dial on female leadership

Written by
Mary Appleton

23 Mar 2016

23 Mar 2016 • by Mary Appleton

On 26 March, 1973, women’s rights took a leap forward when the first female stockbroker entered the London Stock Exchange. Ten newly elected women members were admitted for the first time in the institution’s 300-year history, representing a significant victory for women’s rights campaigners.

Fast-forward 43 years, and while the dial is moving in the right direction, women remain starkly under-represented in the global workforce. Just 26 women were listed in the Fortune 500 in 2015, only six women are CEOs in the UK FTSE100 and the World Economic Forum calculates that women are a staggering 118 years away from closing the gender pay gap.
If organisations maintain the current rate of progress, female representation will reach only 40% globally in the professional and managerial ranks in 2025, according to a report entitled When Women Thrive by HR consultancy Mercer.

Increasing female representation

Why are there so few women in leadership positions and what can employers do to change this? “The traditional methods of advancing women are not moving the needle, and under-representation of women around the world has become an economic and social travesty,” says Pat Milligan, Mercer’s global leader of When Women Thrive.

“While leaders have focused on women at the top, they’re largely ignoring the critical female talent pipelines. “Every organisation has a choice to keep the status quo or drive growth, communities and economies through the power of women,” she asserts.

Building the female talent pipeline

Stocking the female talent pipeline for senior appointments requires business support, sponsorship and creativity, suggests Jenni Hibbert, practice leader at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

She says: “To achieve balance in the workforce, longlists and shortlists must be balanced. Sponsorship, mentoring and role models have a part to play, as does an inclusive culture and providing employees with meaningful choices. Diverse interview panels and selection committees are key.”

Hibbert says a number of companies are conducting talent-mapping and benchmarking exercises before, or as part of, a wider recruitment process, which can identify talent from sectors not previously on the radar. She also points out the need for women to be proactive in acquiring the skills and confidence to apply for senior roles, and seeking advice from their network.

“It takes, on average, 10 weeks longer to engage a female candidate than a male candidate,” she says. “Women worry about the 20% of experience they lack, rather than the 80% they can demonstrate. Female candidates view culture, people and environment on a par with the role on offer. They are sensitive to ‘tokenism’ and can be reluctant to engage with a ‘diversity’ hire.”

Engaging the chief diversity officer and other women leaders early on in the recruitment process contributes to a successful outcome, she suggests.

For Professor Dianne Bevelander of Rotterdam School of Management, barriers to women’s career development include male-biased business schools, which shape management attitudes and practice.

She says: “Business schools lack female role models – senior faculty and invited speakers are mainly male. Leadership courses reference males and use male metaphors, related to sport or the military.”

Bevelander argues that business school educators must stop reinforcing the notion that there are “powerful and charismatic male leaders”– usually white – who “rescue” companies. “Leadership is not a white, male privilege and we need to stop reinforcing the notion,” she adds.

Beyond executive appointments

Turning to the corporate arena, while the UK has made substantive progress in appointing women to FTSE Boards, particularly in the past four years – women non-executive directors (NEDs) on FTSE 100 Boards increased from 15.6% in 2011 to 31.4% in 2015 – progress in the executive ranks remains glacial. Hibbert argues it is time to refocus the lens on executive pipeline.

“Companies have made enormous strides in recruiting and strengthening their female talent pipeline,” she says. “Yet when it comes to diversity in hiring, creativity and momentum at leadership level is sometimes diminished during implementation. Greater investment in professional development, unconscious bias training and technology to track employee’s careers will pay dividends in attracting and retaining the next generation of female leaders.” It is important to look at the entire workforce holistically.

Mercer’s report found that while women are 1.5 times more likely than men to be hired at executive level, they leave organisations from the highest rank at 1.3 times the rate of men.

“Quotas and targets in the UK and Europe have boosted female representation in senior roles. But in this region, there is a disturbing revolving door,” says Julia Howes, principal at Mercer. Although focus at the top is necessary, given that women hold only 20% of executive-level positions, Howes argues that failure to focus further down the pipeline means women will represent only 40% of the workforce at the professional level and above by 2025. “Organisations need to focus on systemic, supporting practices,” she advises.