Women on top

Hilary Devey is exploring the issue of why there are not more women at the top of UK companies.

It’s a bit of a week for shoulder pads. Dallas is back, of course, and Hilary Devey, although she might not wear shoulder pads at all even though she looks like she should, is back on our screens tackling the thorny issue of why there aren’t more women at the top of businesses.
Her series Women on top began last night on BBC Two, tucked away around the time the Paralympics 100m final was taking off, but it is shaping up to be very interesting viewing.
Hilary started the programme convinced that any woman could make it to the top like she had and that it was not up to employers to help them. By the end of the programme she was ready to look at how her own company could get a better gender balance in every department.
Hilary talked to Ceri Goddard of the Fawcett Society who showed her in graphic detail, using red and blue students, how female talent is being lost from the workforce at middle and senior management level. Men and women start at a more or less even level, she says, but 70% of middle managers are men and just 17% of senior and board level managers are women. “It’s a shocking waste of talent,” said Ceri. Hilary agreed. “It’s bad for business.”
The students who took part in the demonstration, were also shocked. Many thought gender equality in the workplace was something from the dim and distant past. Hilary spoke to Sir Roger Carr at the CBI. He agreed that it was a huge drain on business to lose so much female talent. Recruitment and training costs alone represented a huge waste of money.
Gender balance
Hilary went to talk to Proctor & Gamble which 12 years ago had just one woman on its board. Now it has a 50/50 gender balance at all levels. The company had contacted women who had left to find out why and discovered that it wasn’t that they wanted to stay home with their children as they had assumed. Some 95% had gone on to another job. The reason was that they didn’t view Proctor & Gamble as offering the work life balance they needed.
Cue a total overhaul of their working culture. They now offer flexible working at all levels and train staff in appreciating male and female styles of work behaviour. They believe it makes business sense.
This may be true at big companies which can absorb the costs of things like maternity leave, but what happens at SMEs who live closer to the bottom line, asked Hilary. She spoke to a female boss of a coach company. She admitted that, while the company can claim back 92% of the costs of maternity leave, they were still left to cover around £8-10K per woman.
The programme also covered the benefits of mixed teams. Judith Baxter from Aston University did an interesting experiment which demonstrated how mixed teams are more productive than single sex teams. It was food for thought. Hilary also looked at how job descriptions for senior positions could put women off by the words they used. Words such as “exceptional” and “gravitas” might seem neutral, but in an experiment that kind of language was enough to put women off applying. Women do not tend to see themselves as exceptional apparently. Kate Grussing of Sapphire Partners agreed. She said women tended to point out the two reasons they would not be suitable for a position where men highlighted the 10 reasons why they would be. Confidence was clearly a key issue and having to balance so many different childcare and work responsibilities could lead to it being undermined, the programme found. Childcare costs were another potential barrier to women’s progress.
Hilary, who brought up her son singlehandedly, let rip at one poor CEO. She asked him if he would leave a meeting early to attend a parent’s evening. He said he would have planned ahead so he didn’t have a meeting during parent’s evening. Quick as a flash she was back at him, saying if he did have an emergency he was probably in the fortunate position of having 99% support at home to enable him to address it.
She then submitted her own pallets business to a gender audit. It found that Hilary’s gender had made a positive impact on her business, but that she needed to use her position as a female leader to recruit more women to her business to ensure a greater gender balance. The figures showed that the departments with the greatest gender balance were the most profitable.
More next week…

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