Women in business

14 January 2016

When you talk about promoting gender diversity in senior positions within a country or organisation, some people respond by saying that, although it’s a really important subject, we can’t only look at women in the workplace because we risk alienating others and that we should be looking at ways of engaging employees from all minority groups (e.g. cultural, ethnic and age diversity).

Now, although I can see where they are coming from, what concerns me is: how can 50% of the population be considered a minority group?

Back in October, ELLE UK TV shared a short video that reflects back many situations in business, music, art and media where the female population is represented by just one woman. This video shines a light on how widespread this issue is.

So is this problem too big for a single organisation to tackle? Is this why organisations tend to shy away from it, saying that having women in senior positions is something that needs to happen organically?

A recent INAC report reveals some interesting facts. The first is that Norway boasts the highest global proportion of companies with a female Chairperson (just over 11%). Secondly, that only 5% of CEOs of the world’s largest corporations are women.

The report also looks at how some countries and organisations have opted for introducing certain quotas to tackle the issue, but it’s clear to me from the L&D and D&I conferences that I have attended that most people find this an uncomfortable method. There is a feeling that quotas can potentially work against women because the process may be seen as preferential treatment and women may feel their talent is undermined by a law or organisational rule.

Do you agree? And if so, what can we do?

We know that women make up over half of the population, that they are just as successful as their male counterparts at school, university and in the early stages of their careers. What happens after that? At around the 30 to mid 30’s age group, women seem to drop off the career ladder and their progression within an organisation starts to slow down. The obvious observation is that this is when women start having children and that, for some, this means their priorities change. But is that true? I am a woman reaching my 30’s and I know that the women around me of a similar age are very passionate about what they do, as am I. We want to continue with our careers.

On the other hand, I am also noticing that we are starting to have conversations about what our future will look like:

  • Should we go for that promotion if we are planning on starting a family soon?
  • What is going to happen if we exit the business for a year?
  • What will be there when we come back and what will our colleagues’ and bosses’ expectations be when we return?

The ingenious twitter account @Manwhohasitall shines a light on the unconscious biases we have about working mums. It reveals some of the expectations placed on working mums by writing about them as if they were working dads – the effect is brilliant! Have a read and see how it makes you feel. It made me see that I hold a number of these biases without realising it. And – as someone who has been working in the D&I space for over 7 years – if I’m thinking it, then how many other women, men, managers, leaders are thinking it?

And what about the women who don’t have children? What unconscious biases might they have that could be stopping them from progressing into these senior positions?

At Steps, we design programmes that challenge unconscious bias and non-inclusive behaviours in ways that stimulate discussion and help participants see their own biases on an individual level. I know we still have a long way to go but I’m proud to be looking at this issue every day – finding new ways to challenge the status quo and help people in organisations do the same.

What do you think? Do you agree with quotas? Anything your organisation has pro-actively done to promote more women in senior positions?

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