Creating a work environment in which all employees can thrive is key to achieving greater representation of women on boards, writes Vanda Murray, chair of Marshalls plc
In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article entitled ‘What most people get wrong about men and women’, the authors argue that there is little scientific evidence to support the idea that women fundamentally lack the confidence, appetite for risk and ability to negotiate that is needed to achieve parity with men in the workplace. Instead of being rooted in ‘fixed gender traits’, the article argues, it is the culture of an organisation that defines gender differences.
My experience affirms this. I often have conversations with men and women about what they want in their career and what they believe in. I don’t see much difference in the ambitions of men and women, but I do see the stereotypes that make it harder for women to fulfil their potential. It’s not so much about how men and women differ, but about how organisations reinforce behaviours and norms that better suit men.
We have made much progress in achieving greater gender equality on boards since the government’s first Women on Boards report of 2011. Women now make up 26.1% of directors on FTSE 100 boards compared with only 12.5% in 2010.
However, this progress has been made largely by appointing female non-executive directors. There is still a lack of female executive directors and very few female CEOs. There are only 22 female chairs of FTSE350 companies, of which I am one.
Reinforcing the talent pipeline
The 2016 Hampton-Alexander Review of female leadership in FTSE companies set five key recommendations aimed at increasing the number of women in leadership positions in FTSE 350 companies. The review highlighted the importance of ensuring the pipeline by which companies are developing future executives is suitably diverse and watertight.
There’s no shortage of female workers, yet women fail to progress through the ranks. This is due to the leaky pipeline.
Improving and ensuring gender equality within the organisation means looking at the fine detail of how we create the conditions and environments that will allow women to progress.
Every organisation needs a tailor-made diversity plan that will best suit its operations and interests. Within the framework, there are a number of initiatives that can be put in place. These may include:
- Unconscious bias training
- Leadership training
- Talent management
- Flexible working patterns
- Structured planning and support around maternity/paternity leave
Programmes like Manchester Metropolitan University’s Generating Routes for Women’s Leadership (Growl) can help leaders better understand the challenges within their organisations and take effective action through its peer network and ‘ideas bank’.
Above all, there must be a clear message from the top. The senior leadership team needs to demonstrate that they are serious about, and are committed to, diversity and creating an inclusive environment which is as fair to women as it is to men.
It is essential to ask: ‘How can I change how my organisation pulls all talented people through?’ A company that has a strong desire to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce will raise everyone’s aspirations.
There is also a role for women to play. I mentor both men and women and stress that it’s important to be both visible and vocal. I go to too many conferences with panels that have too few, or no, women speaking.
There is no one answer to achieving true diversity, no single solution. Rather, it is about removing barriers, both the obvious ones and those that are hidden. It’s about ensuring that there are clear pathways that allow and encourage women to progress through the organisation.
It’s about challenging long-held and poorly justified stereotypes. And it’s about creating the conditions that will allow everyone – men and women – to realise their potential.
Vanda Murray is chair of the board of governors at Manchester Metropolitan University and serves on the Generating Routes for Women’s Leadership advisory group. She was appointed an OBE in 2002 for services to industry and export. In 2018, she won the Sunday Times Non-Executive Director of the Year award for her work at Manchester Airports Group.