Closing the Gender Gap: How to Retain Senior Women in Business

Closing the Gender Gap: How to Retain Senior Women in Business

Despite making up half of the workforce across the UK and the world, the truth is that women are still significantly under-represented in senior management positions. Even in companies that make products specifically aimed at women, many are still headed up by a board of men.

This issue is one that goes far deeper than companies failing to employ women; it’s not as simple as that. Nor can it be solved overnight, but it is something that we hope this report will at least address.

International Women’s Day comes once a year, and is a time when the achievements of women, not just in business, can be championed and celebrated. To celebrate this day Best Companies, released today a report entitled Closing the Gender Gap: How to Retain Senior Women in Business.

Famed for being the driving force behind the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For List, Best Companies provides the most comprehensive and reliable tools for businesses to measure how happy their employees are. As workplace engagement specialists, we see it as our mission to help employers – through the use of our extensive employee-generated data – to create a world where everybody loves their job.

Ultimately, what this report hopes to do is to ensure that the issues surrounding equality in business remain at the forefront of the conversation, helping to inspire companies to constantly explore what they can do to improve the way that they engage with diverse talent, and how to retain them for the future.

The progress made…

Looking back less than a hundred years, it’s clear that progress has been made.

Last year a report by the former trade minister Lord Davies revealed that there are no longer any all-male boards within FTSE 100 companies. These organisations have historically been dominated by men in the boardroom, and this report was the first step towards breaking down those walls.

In 2015, the UK government announced that UK firms that fail to address their gender pay gap will be highlighted in league tables. According to the final report, “employers must also publish their gender pay gap on their websites. They will have to report every year and senior executives will be expected to sign off the figures personally.”

Report Improving the Gender Balance on British Boards, 2015

Plenty of work still to be done…

Regardless of the progress that has been made so far, there is still a long way to go before there is equal representation of women in senior leadership positions. This is proven by the government initiatives mentioned above. In 2015, the Office for National Statistics reported that the gender pay gap was relatively unchanged, dropping just 0.2% in one year. And whilst the government’s push to encourage businesses to publish their salary data is a step in the right direction, the initiative will only apply to those with more than 250 employees. Given the fact that the UK’s business landscape is predominantly made up of SMEs that won’t hire that many people, the full scale of the gender pay gap is unlikely to be addressed.

And as we mentioned above, last year FTSE 100 firms achieved a target, to which they voluntarily agreed to, to have 25% of female board members. While some will see this as a cause to celebrate, the reality of only having 25% of female representation on boards still leaves many questions unanswered as to why the numbers aren’t higher.

Perhaps even more shocking, last year it was reported by The Guardian that there were more men named John in charge of FTSE 100 companies than there were women. The number of senior females within these companies could actually be counted on two hands; seven. The New York Times ran with a similar story, demonstrating that the issue isn’t confined to the UK. They reported that for every female chief executive of an S&P 1,500 company, there were four male CEOs named John, James, William or Robert.

Engagement, not box ticking

While government initiatives certainly do have their part to play in the fight for gender equality in all areas, from a business point of view, the whole exercise runs the risk of turning into a box-ticking process, rather than real progress. In the same sense, putting quotas together quickly turns the entire issue of engaging women in leadership positions into a meaningless numbers game that prioritises targets over hiring the right person for the right job.

The issue of a lack of women in senior management positions goes far beyond numbers. And by relying too much on quotas, we are failing to address the real issues. Instead of focusing on targets, processes and boxes to be ticked, businesses need to look beyond the surface to discover what attracts women to positions of leadership, and how we can engage them enough to stay.

Advice by women, for women

Engagement is ultimately what good business is all about. At their very core, great businesses will focus more on the engagement of their employees in order to achieve all-round success.

Rather than speculating about what businesses can be doing to engage more women in their work and propel them into leadership roles, we have gone straight to the top. Rather than pay lip service to the notion of quotas and positive discrimination, we spoke to a number of women who are at the top of their fields, working in senior positions, to give their views and opinions. These women are leading the charge for equality in the workplace, and have the real-life experience to be able to say what they believe will work and what won’t.

Throughout life, a huge part of our success is down to confidence. However, numerous studies have consistently shown that this can be a huge barrier for women.

In fact, a report from Hewlett-Packard in 2014 found that whilst men will apply for a job that they feel they are 60% qualified for, women will only apply if they believe they are 100% qualified. More than anything else, this highlights just how prominent the issue of confidence is amongst working women, regardless of the industry they work in.

Source: HP report 2014

Kate Gaskin is the director and founder of Right Angle Events, worked as a Sergeant in the Metropolitan Police for 21 years, and is the organiser of the Norwich Women Business Network. As a woman with such an expansive and varied career, she is well-versed in the challenges that women face when trying to climb the ladder and believes that a lack of confidence can have a staggering impact:

“Overall I think self-belief is a tough one for some women. Women are less self-promoting, less likely to ask for a pay rise and more self-deprecating in applications. Companies being aware of that can get them to see that they can be as good as another individual who is more self-promoting. I don’t believe we should have quotas, positive discrimination or female-only sections, but we can encourage application, look for rising stars and dangle things in front of them.”

Whether this is an issue of nature or has been subconsciously ingrained throughout history isn’t important. What is important is that everyone, both companies and individuals, work to instil more confidence in anyone who lacks it, whether male or female; something that will only come through experience. Later on in the report we touch on the subject of mentors, and many of the women we spoke to believe that this is an integral part of addressing the workplace gender imbalance.

2. See them as a person

Best Companies are experts in employee engagement. They understand that it’s not just about showing up at the office to do a job. Having a career means believing in what you do, having the support you need and doing the job well, regardless of your gender. And isn’t that what fundamentally needs to change? The way that men and women are treated differently when it comes to the workplace? Whether the person you are hiring or looking to promote is a man or a woman should play no part in the process. If they have the skills and attributes you are looking for, hire them!

Alison Butler is Head of Client Engagement at Best Companies, and believes that the biggest way to drive change is to become “gender blind” when hiring or promoting. See the person for their talents, rather than their gender or focusing on filling a quota:

“There’s no doubt that diversity in leadership teams helps organisations grow and innovate, but I don’t believe this is about implementing quotas or positive discrimination; rather it’s about ensuring there are diverse voices who are all listened to, equally.

“In terms of what companies can do to engage women in senior leadership positions so they feel supported and encouraged, I don’t believe this is gender specific. We should provide all employees with opportunities for personal growth, as it’s a key factor in employee engagement. At Best Companies our data shows that leaders who motivate, care for, consider and converse with their teams have the greatest impact. At the end of the day it’s all about who can do the job and live the organisation’s values, regardless of gender; and there is a spectrum of effective leadership styles that can’t be neatly pigeon-holed into male and female, and as such we should treat everyone the same.”

While it’s true that the majority of companies out there will strive for equality and diversity throughout their hiring process, the unfortunate reality is that many people in charge of bringing in new people will be subconsciously biased. A report by the CIPD in 2015 entitled ‘Head for Hire: The Behavioural Science of Recruiting’ found that both male and female managers can tend to favour men in hiring decisions, with further evidence showing that people often hire ‘mini-me’s’ – in terms of experiences, hobbies, and how we present ourselves.

Penny de Valk, Managing Director of Penna Talent Practice, serves on a board with numerous other women, and she agrees that the tendency to hire men over women is more subconscious than deliberate:

“We tend to recruit in our own image. We know what good looks like as long as it looks like us. The people who are doing the recruiting and what they think good looks like doesn’t necessarily always speak to what a woman looks like.

“Sometimes even the unconscious bias, people sometimes aren’t aware that they’re filtering out which people have potential and who should be promoted. Because they’re looking through a lens as leadership abilities tend to be masculine in nature.”

How can we fix this issue?

The subconscious preference to hire men over women is something that is not going to disappear overnight. It is one that is going to require time, effort and investment from companies big and small. First and foremost, businesses should prioritise training for those who are responsible for the hiring process. As we have mentioned before, we tend to recruit in our own image and studies have already proven that this can sway interviewers towards hiring a male candidate.

Businesses should focus on making sure their HR departments or people who hire are trained to spot talent during interviews, regardless of their gender. Sometimes, the bias can be so subconscious that they aren’t aware of it, so reframing people’s way of looking at others to see talent and potential is crucial. This kind of approach ensures that companies don’t fall into the trap of either hiring for the sake of ticking boxes, and don’t miss out on some high-quality hires.

Look within for senior roles

Whether they are intentionally put in place or not, organisational hierarchies within a business can be incredibly damaging for retaining not just women, but all employees. If people don’t have a clear sense of direction then they aren’t going to want to stick around; so it’s no wonder that companies may experience a flight-risk amongst mid-level women.

The key to solving this particular issue is for companies to work harder at identifying women in middle management positions who demonstrate the qualities and skills needed to lead, and working to ensure that they are mentored and developed.

Closing the Gender Gap: How to Retain Senior Women in Business

Hayley Smith started her own PR agency, Boxed Out PR, when she was just 23 years old…

“Companies often have good intentions to diversify their companies, and create higher positions for women, however there doesn’t always seem to be enough policy in place to make it happen. “Career mapping from an employer can add value and loyalty and create equal opportunities. Mapping can remove the chances that women will not be aware of opportunities suited to them.”

This report has already touched on the subject of engagement, but a huge part of that in itself is ensuring that people have goals to work towards and then offering the support to get them there. Rather than looking to bring in senior leaders externally, women are more likely to feel able to do the job if a business has identified their talent and invested in it from the word go. Not only does this help to improve confidence, but it also maintains engagement and means people are likely to stick around for longer.

Make mentoring a priority
The distinct lack of women in leadership roles doesn’t provide much inspiration for others. The more that women are seen in these roles, the more motivated others will be to follow.

Angelica Malin is the Editor-in-Chief of About Time Magazine, an online publication focusing on all things food, lifestyle and London that she started off her own back when she was in her 20s. She feels that inspirational women have a key part to play in getting more women into businesses, and that a bigger deal should be made of those who are already successful:

“One of the best things that companies could do is to actually get senior women from within their own companies to talk, because often you go to speeches or presentations and it’s very male-focused. Often when you go to career days hosted by big brands or big companies trying to recruit people, there’s still a lot of guys present. So I think one of the best things a company could do is get senior-level women who are already within the company to go and meet people.

“I think that would show the company itself to be quite favourable towards women, and for me it would encourage me to work there.”

Penny de Valk also strongly advocated the usefulness of mentoring, but stated that it should go a step further where people act as sponsors for other women, rather than simply being a guide:

“What we do find is that mentors are really important for careers, for both men and women. But what we also find is that when women choose mentors, they’re often not senior enough. And women tend to expect and get development conversations as opposed to sponsoring conversations, where a sponsor could be supporting their career trajectory. So I think women should be really conscious to get a mentor that can be a sponsor, not just someone who can give them feedback and advice.”

What do the experts say?

Without a doubt, the best people to listen to about climbing the career ladder are those who have done it themselves. This logic has formed the entire basis of Best Companies report. And while we have focused a great deal on how to overcome the issues that are facing women in business, what women in the workplace really need is tangible advice that they can put into action.