Business must understand the male-female divide – Pearl & Dean CEO Kathryn Jacob

Kathryn Jacob, CEO of Pearl & Dean

Inclusivity at work delivers competitive advantage. But with only 30 per cent of FTSE 100 board posts held by women, Pearl & Dean CEO Kathryn Jacob says business must examine gender differences to stop the talent drain

Last November, Lord Davies published his final report on improving the gender balance of UK boards. His 2011 target for women to hold a quarter of FTSE 100 board positions by 2015 had been met. Recognising there was still work to do, he set a new target of 33 per cent for the FTSE 350 by 2020. “Of course that’s progress,” says Kathryn Jacob as she shows Director into the boardroom of cinema advertising firm Pearl & Dean. “But the last time we looked women made up 50 per cent of the population.”

Jacob is co-author (with MediaCom chief strategy officer Sue Unerman) of the straight-talking, highly practical The Glass Wall. Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham calls it “revelatory”, Martha Lane Fox hails the “common sense at its heart” and Helena Kennedy QC says it is “essential advice to business leaders on how to stop the talent drain of women in their organisations”. Jacob and Unerman are out to deconstruct barriers and provide realistic solutions to the gender divide.

“Sue and I had both been fortunate enough to reach fulfilment in our careers but we knew many men in senior positions are baffled by the drop-out of talented women from the career ladder,” explains Jacob. “We realised what was missing was a strategy for success to help all women capitalise on opportunities at work or overcome the inevitable complications that arise over the course of a career. A strategy that can be adopted by businesses to help level the playing field.”

The Glass Wall lays bare the gender differences rather than tiptoeing around them. “We think we’re the same, but we’re not. Men and women don’t speak the same language or have the same cultural expectations. As a result, women’s careers are suffering,” says Jacob. “The status quo has been left alone for too long, it is time for a change.”

As well as drawing on their own experiences, the pair commissioned research in the US, UK and Russia, interviewing more than 100 people from different sectors. They identify seven key themes in the gender divide, such as ‘cutting through’ – men like to get noticed, whereas women like to get on with work.

The glass wall, say the authors, manifests itself in many ways: being excluded from meetings, dropped off email trails, women’s ideas being heard only when spoken by a man. And importantly, stresses Jacob, a lack of clarity and understanding about career progression. “Women are ambivalent about putting themselves forward. If a job has 10 criteria, women will have eight but not put themselves forward because they’re missing two; men will have five and think ‘I’ll blag the rest’. We want to ensure the gender divide in career progression ends now. It’s not enough to create a level playing field if that level playing field doesn’t take account of differences between men and women.”

And the risk if we carry on as we are? “Talent loss. Which will put your business at a disadvantage because your competitors might pick up the best talent. More girls are going to university than boys and are doing better, so if you don’t encourage them and change your approach, then you are depriving your company of the best talent irrespective of whether they are male or female.”

And Jacob believes businesses have to take a long view when it comes to the ‘childcare years’ of some of their best employees: “One of the big barriers is children, but if you have had someone in your business who has that institutional memory, relationships with clients and understanding of your vision, why not work around that?” The solution, Jacob says, is flexibility.

But many businesses already have flexible working practices – so what’s going wrong? “You can’t just write a policy down, those at the top have to live it,” she says, telling the story of a FTSE 100 firm with a flexible working policy none of the staff used. “The reason? None of the directors did! The feeling among employees was, ‘You say we can do this but it’s a trick’.” Directors were told to work at home one day a week and only then did behaviour change. Jacob says businesses have to live their values, offer flexibility and make their talent comfortable if the damaging culture of presenteeism is to fade.

“There is a difference between being in the office and being present. From my three-day-a-week senior females, I probably get a five-day week, whereas you can be in the office but not doing any work. One of my peers has a guy who works five days but doesn’t do any work while The Open is on. He’s there, headphones in, with golf on a minimised screen. He’s in the office but not of the office. Presenteeism is damaging for all – one woman we spoke to wants to go back to work now her kids are at school but her husband works in a culture of high presenteeism where he has to be in by 8am, and if he leaves before 7pm someone will shout ‘half day?’ That is stifling her opportunities. Business needs to think differently – why not opt for five brilliant hours instead of eight average ones?”

Jacob challenges companies to nurture a culture that enables equal contribution. At a workshop she held on career advancement at a retail company, one young woman sat with her arms folded. Asked what was wrong, she said the theory was all fine but the two other people in her department played cricket with the MD: “So who was going to be front of mind when a promotion comes in? Enabling the contribution of all employees is absolutely key, not everyone can be part of the drink-after-work culture or has time to train for a team triathlon.”

Jacob suggests looking at different ways of bringing people together. She tells of a business leader who organises ‘netwalks’, a 15-mile team walk in the countryside. “There’s no forced conversation, you’re out of the office, getting exercise and making lasting connections… It’s time businesses looked after their talented women employees to ensure they reap the returns in terms of loyalty, experience and success.”

The Glass Wall by Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob (£9.99, Profile Books) is out now

Kathryn Jacob CV

Education University of Wales

1992 Agency sales director, IPC magazines

1996 Commercial director, Virgin Radio

2003 Managing director, SMG Access

2006–present CEO, Pearl & Dean

Other roles Member of the government expert group on body confidence; development board of Women’s Aid; former president of Women in Advertising


About author

Lysanne Currie

Lysanne Currie

Lysanne Currie is an editor, writer and digital content creator. Her first job was at Melody Maker and she then spent over 10 years in teenage magazines working from sub editor on 19 Magazine to editorial director of Hachette’s Teen Group. Her previous roles include group editor and head of content publishing for Director Publications and editorial director at BSkyB overseeing Sky’s entertainment, sports and digital magazines. Lysanne lives in London with her music promoter partner and a four year old Jack Russell.

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