Women need to be better educated about the long-term consequences of their early career choices if we want to encourage greater equality on the boards of the UK's top companies, says Lynne Berry.
Lynne, who is Deputy Chair of the new Waterways Charity and a former head of the Equal Opportunities Commission, will be the keynote speaker at Workingmums.co.uk's Top Employer Awards in November which celebrate best practice in flexible working and diversity.
She is currently in the throes of evaluating an innovative seminar series at Cass Business School aimed at outstanding female chief executives interested in serving on private sector boards.
She says there has been a lot of interest in the programme from the media and headhunters, who had previously thought of women from voluntary organisations as being of little interest to the corporate sector.
One issue that emerged was the difference between what the women board members thought corporates were looking for and what they were actually seeking. The women thought the board chairs wanted highly experienced generalist leaders and managers when in fact they often looked for specialists in areas such as finance and strategy.
All the women, who were CEOs of multi-million pound organisations with huge staffs, had the specialist experience, but would not have thought of presenting themselves as specialists when going for a corporate board job. “The women took these skills for granted and presented themselves as all-rounders when the corporates wanted specialists,” says Lynne.
Another issue that came out of the seminar series was the importance of helping women understand the consequences of the choices they make at different stages in their career. “If they choose to stay in practice and haven't had a management job by the time they are 40-45 it will be harder to get one at a later stage,” says Lynne. “It's not that they are making a wrong decision, but you cannot complain at a later stage that there are no opportunities for you if at the age of 40 you cannot read a balance sheet.”
She has recently written about women and career choices in the Guardian and one of the main responses that came back from the article was that women had to balance looking after children and their job, which might make them opt for less managerial roles. “They might think management roles are too hard and too demanding of their time while their children are young or they might want to stick with something they know,” she says. She feels, however, that many take those decisions without weighing up the long-term effects on their career.
Whereas men might just risk taking a step up the career ladder, women tend to think of all the negatives when it might be better to just jump in and sort out the other issues as they go along, she says.
Other potential hurdles for women rising the career ladder which could be addressed were women's relative reluctance to get involved in networking and mentoring and the fact they were less likely to ask for promotion - either due to lack of confidence or being blocked - feeling that their work record spoke for itself. “There is a lot that could be done to give women more confidence that they can go for it, take a risk and not feel if they don't get a promotion that they have failed,” says Lynne.
She believes that we are now at a crucial moment for women's equality in the workplace.
The issue of women on the boards is covered extensively in the media in a way that it wasn't two or three years ago and at the same time that there is a global financial crisis, she says. “There is a sense that things need to be done differently and diversity is seen as being an important part of the solution. If there is an opportunity I say let's grab it. In two or three years' time it won't be fashionable.”
An increasing number of businesses, such as Marks & Spencer, were also recognising that having a more diverse board was good for business. Research showed too that women had a lot to offer at a senior level, including stronger communication skills and were better at consensus management.
On the vexed issue of quotas, Lynne is in favour of “targets with a timetable”. Lord Davies' target of 25% female representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies by 2015 has focused the minds of businesspeople, she says, as has the threat of the EU imposing quotas. “The threat of quotas is making people take action,” she says, adding that it has been “a major driver” in boosting the percentage of women on the boards of FTSE companies to nearly 16% this year after a three-year plateau of 12%.
She believes it is best to try the threat approach first and then, if that doesn't work, to impose quotas, although she says these might need to be different in different industries which have further to go in terms of male female ratios. She cites the example of political representation and says it was only when Labour imposed that there was any real difference in the percentage of women in Parliament.
Lynne is currently writing up the Cass Business School seminar series and hopes to hold events with the 30% Club with chairs of FTSE 100 companies and headhunters to explain her findings and find ways forward.
Another avenue she hopes to explore is the inclusion of modules on career decision-making and diversity in certain MBA courses offered by Cass. She is also keen to put together a group of “emerging women” who can act as role models for young women and explain the decisions they have taken regarding their career and how this has impacted on it.
Lynne herself recalls being told when she was 23 and about to choose a role that was not too different from what she was doing already that she needed to consider whether the decision would open more doors for her than it closed. She says: “I've never forgotten that and it has affected every decision I've made since. I want to make sure that all young women get that advice.”