Fewer than one in 10 leadership roles at our FTSE 250 companies are filled by women. Much has been said about this and although there has been some progress towards gender equality in boardrooms, progress is slow.
I am aware as both a woman and as someone from a Northern working-class family, that I have a responsibility to ensure I hold the door open for other people with similar backgrounds to get on in business.
The argument is simple. It makes business sense for there to be greater diversity in the boardroom, not just in terms of gender or ethnicity but also age and social class. The wider the range of voices that are heard, the more thoughtful and balanced a company’s response or position will be on a variety of issues. A McKinsey report, Delivering through diversity, has claimed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity in leadership teams are 21 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than the bottom quartile. Diversity ultimately benefits employees, employers and customers alike – particularly given the pace of global change and new challenges that push the boundaries of our collective experience.
A crisis such as Covid-19 has only served to reinforce how crucial it is to hear and learn from different perspectives. We have seen female politicians such as New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern hailed as one of the most effective and empathetic leaders during this crisis. As researched by the UK government, we’ve seen how, in the UK, our black and minority ethnic communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Our response to Covid-19 must be influenced by these factors and, for business to do that, it needs to have many voices represented at the top table.
What can be done?
For organisations to achieve representation that is more reflective of society, social mobility is key. Where, in the past, professional roles have often been populated by people who knew each other from the same elite educational institutions, my concern is how we bring on the next generation of leaders who do not have that same confidence nurtured by a private education or the network of an old boys’ club. We must continue to support ongoing campaigns that are driving change in this area, such as the Parker review into ethnic diversity enriching business leadership at UK companies.
My experience over many years in business, as well as in my personal life, has reinforced my view that ability and hard work sometimes aren’t enough – but with encouragement and advice, people ‘make their own luck’, which can help propel them in the right direction. I’ve been privileged to have played a small role in helping some seize opportunities and progress. And I’ve witnessed how that progression and development has transformed lives. If you provide the right opportunities and encouragement, giving help when needed, people will succeed if they are determined enough and have self-belief.
It is critical that women in particular have role models who demonstrate that achieving their ambition to lead is possible. I very much think that seeing is believing. If young women see someone who has overcome challenges and even prejudice to achieve a leadership role, they realise they also may be capable of achieving more than they thought.
One of the biggest obstacles that I believe prevents women from reaching higher positions in business is a lack of confidence. This issue was recently explored in an NBER paper entitled The Gender Gap in Self-Promotion. I’ve seen women hold back on seeking a promotion, or a new role, because they aren’t sure they satisfy 100 per cent of the job criteria, even when others know they are more than capable. Men, conversely, generally do not lack confidence, and would typically apply for a job if they matched some of the criteria, believing they can ‘wing’ the rest – so they are more successful in progressing compared to their female counterparts.
This is why it is crucial that women are given encouragement and support to push their personal boundaries and give things a go. It benefits themselves and their employer when they excel in a new job they would not have dared apply for previously. I have encouraged several women who have worked for me to apply for new roles and there has not been a single instance where the woman in question has not succeeded and flourished. Because of course she was more than capable, but just didn’t realise until she did it.
That being said, it isn’t just women who need help to move up a rung on the career ladder. I have also mentored men who needed someone to help them make that leap. In one particular case, a young man I knew who had a first-class degree was struggling to get work because he kept failing at the interview stage. We overhauled his application strategy, focused on his strengths, his performance improved, and he was very quickly offered a job he wanted. It shows the power that having a mentor can have to help people start, or further, their careers.
When the Covid-19 pandemic is over, the world of work will look very different for many people. Women make up 39 per cent of global employment but accounted for 54 per cent of overall job losses as of May 2020, according to McKinsey. There is already an emphasis on reskilling and retraining and this must ramp up. As employers, we have to look at this as an opportunity to fill skills gaps and get good people into our organisations. More than ever before, the current generation of young people entering the world of work need the support and help we can all offer to help them achieve their potential. Others, perhaps mid-career, may also now need to take a new direction. And if I can make even a small difference – then I will be very happy helping others achieve what they are capable of.
Lynn Mawdsley is managing director of support services at Interserve