Eight ways to level the playing field for women to succeed
Mar 8th, 2023
As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2023 it was encouraging to read about the progress that has been made around female leadership.
The proportion of women in board roles in Britain’s 350 biggest listed companies has risen above 40% for the first time.
Female-led companies represented one-fifth of all businesses in the UK in 2022, up from 16% in 2018.
The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship estimates that £250bn could be added to the UK economy if women matched men in starting and scaling up businesses.
This year’s IWD theme focuses on equity and the importance of bridging the gap that exists in order for everyone to be on a level playing field to succeed.
Below I look at four ways business leaders can level the playing field for women, along with four steps that women can take themselves to make equity more achievable.
Make flexibility work
According to the McKinsey ‘Women in the Workplace’ 2022 report, only 10 per cent of women want to be in the office full time, compared to 61 per cent who want to work remotely most of the time.
To combat the desire for remote working versus not always wanting to be at home, there is a growing trend for businesses to support the use of localised flexible office space. Standard Chartered Bank, for example, has partnered with flexible workspace provider The Instant Group to give their employees access to thousands of desk spaces around the world.
It was refreshing for me to hear a female marketing executive client in the US explain how she could fulfil her ambition to move to California from the East Coast because her company provided her with multiple options of where she could work throughout the country. This choice gave her a feeling of control and a wish to remain in a business that was so progressive and flexible.
Reassess the working week
I have spoken to a number of women who have recently addressed the challenge of working part-time. A few have highlighted the fact that although they officially work four days a week, they in fact usually end up with a workload for five days due to increased responsibilities which mean often doing evening work to catch up.
Flexibility has provided some of the women executives I have worked with the option of working five days a week post maternity leave. They recognise that provided they achieve the outcomes that constitute success, they can put in place structures at home and at work with a hybrid model that works for them and their business, so they continue to succeed in their career.
Provide support and mentoring
Women leaders are uniquely placed to understand the challenges faced by other women in their businesses. These women have an opportunity to reflect on what it took for them to rise to the top and make sure they support future leaders by both taking actions that remove some of the challenges, and by providing them with a mentor they can be inspired by.
A female executive in the finance industry noticed that following a restructuring one woman on her team had taken on too much and was doing the job of two people and this was impacting her performance. This colleague had not wanted to give her role up as she felt it would be viewed as failure, so instead, my client worked with her to agree on a revised role structure that would give her a fair chance to succeed.
At the start of March this year, Nike and Tottenham Hotspur Football Club teamed up with the Female Coaching Network to start a paid internship scheme for young women wanting to get into sports coaching. It has set out to address the fact that the number of women coaching the top teams in women’s football is declining and that a lack of long-term commitment has proved an insurmountable obstacle for aspiring female coaches in the women’s game, where contracts are generally shorter and less well compensated. By creating a paid coaching pathway for talented female coaches, this internship aims to break down some of the barriers which prevent women from accessing networks, education and opportunities in coaching pathways.
Remove bias as a blocker
Although progress has been made on board representation, the government-backed FTSE women leaders review found that UK companies were failing to appoint women to leadership positions below board level at the same rate, with only 33.5% of the executive committee or their direct reports being women.
Increasing the number of women in executive positions is only going to happen by organisations making long-term changes in habits and processes to remove unconscious bias. Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s, for example, requires that all leadership cohorts are gender-balanced, and tracks and closely monitors appointments. In 2022 this resulted in over 500 female employees being promoted to first-level management, whilst 50 per cent of those promoted to senior manager were women.
Similarly, Santander UK regularly reviews its recruitment process to ensure bias is removed. Part of this includes ensuring shortlisting is gender equal and that there are female interviewers on the panel for all senior roles. In its last financial year, 46 per cent of all senior starters were women.
Communicate your Ambitions
In an ideal world, merit will get recognised and rewarded naturally, but the reality is that you need to have clarity of where you would like your career path to go and aid that by communicating clearly what your ambitions are.
I heard recently of two occasions where women who were nearing the end of their maternity leave were given significant promotions. One, an executive who was conscious she was doing much of her manager’s role in addition to hers while not getting recognition for this. When a new CEO who joined the business asked her how she saw her career progressing, she stated that she eventually wanted her manager’s job as she felt qualified to do this. Prior to her return and as part of a restructuring she was rewarded with a promotion.
The other was a client who spoke proudly about the success of his wife who was offered the role of CEO while still on maternity leave. The current CEO had resigned and recommended her as his successor. She was excited at this opportunity and appreciated this would mean returning to full-time work. Teamwork begins at home and as a couple with three young children, they looked at what resources and structures they needed so that she could succeed in her new role.
Start succession planning early
Many clients will express their career ambitions but they do not always have a clear succession plan to allow them to take full advantage of opportunities that arise. I am working with two emerging leaders earmarked as future leaders of an international business where this has become a priority. They have received recognition and promotion because of their ability to make things happen – now a key part of their role is to empower their teams and carve out roles for top performers allowing them the time to focus on more strategic matters to grow and scale the business areas they lead. Changing the mindset of someone who delivers to a leader who can build effective successors by letting go and getting others to deliver is not always easy.
Get Board experience as soon as possible in your career
The topic of getting on boards and committees came up during a recent talk organised by the Mentoring Circle, an initiative set up to address the gender diversity gap at senior leadership level within the Property Industry.
The discussion centred on the importance of sitting on a board or committee as early as possible in your career and building your profile across your business. Whether that is volunteering to join internal sub-committees or boards within your business or sitting on a charity committee in your own time. This exposure will teach you valuable skills of building influence and gravitas and get you recognised.
NatWest CEO Alison Rose, who is an advocate for this, is known for joining her first voluntary board at the age of 14. She endorses how those exposures to board roles early in life helped shape her leadership style and gave her the skills on which to build her career. Rose herself has been credited for implementing changes at the bank that have seen it record its highest profits in 2022 since the global financial crash in 2008.
Embrace your own entrepreneurialism
Whether you are striving to be a success within an organisation or have the ambition to run your own business, the entrepreneur mindset is important to harness. It fosters innovation and creativity and is what differentiates you as a leader able to push a business forward.
The Rose Review centred on investing in women entrepreneurs starting and scaling up their own businesses to help them generate some of the £250bn the UK economy is waiting for.
As Rose states “in a downturn, recovery comes from the entrepreneurs” so supporting female entrepreneurs so they can play a bigger part in this recovery is vital.
If you would like to talk more about what you or your business want to achieve and how you can go about achieving it, then please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.