How can employers improve gender diversity in senior roles?

The gender leadership gap is narrowing, but at a very slow rate and businesses need to start addressing the lack of female representation in senior positions, says Stuart Affleck

Despite huge efforts over the years to improve women’s opportunities in the workplace, we still haven’t cracked the issue of gender inequality at the senior levels of business. 

A third of board positions at the UK’s biggest companies were held by women at the beginning of 2020, according to a government-backed review. The Hampton-Alexander Review also found a lack of women in senior roles – making up only 15 per cent of finance directors, for instance.

The women’s leadership gap is narrowing, but at a very slow rate, and it is vital that we address the lack of female representation in high-power roles. Because make no mistake, it is important to have women in these senior roles. 

Recent statistics from the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum revealed that during the pandemic, those countries led by women locked down more quickly and decisively, saving lives. Having women on the board also makes companies more profitable: The Peterson Institute for International Economics found that having women at the C-Suite level significantly increases net margins.

We know that there is no magic bullet here: it is a work in progress, and the solutions are long term. However, businesses must do more to address the problem and tackle the cultural norms and ingrained biases which can make it harder for women to progress or be recognised as leadership material.  

Tailor your language 

The roots of gender inequality are grounded in childhood, where parents use gender-dependant language to address their children. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that fathers with toddler daughters used more language describing sadness such as, sad, tears or lonely, while fathers with sons in the same age group used more achievement-based words such as top, win and proud. 

Whether or not they are used subconsciously, these language differences condition men and women to think and behave differently to each other. For example, a study by LinkedIn showed that female searchers were less likely than their male equivalents to apply for a position more senior than their current role. This suggests that men are more willing to take the gamble and apply for a job for which they know they’re not fully qualified. It is therefore important to tailor job descriptions with more open-ended language that will give women the confidence to apply. 

Redefine what successful leadership looks like

Creating a truly diverse workplace isn’t about equipping women with the skills and tactics needed to survive in a man’s world. Businesses need to transform so that so-called masculine traits such as confidence and assertiveness are not prioritised over feminine qualities such as compassion and patience. 

Ideally, these traits shouldn’t have genders attached to them at all. Taking time to delve into how a business defines success and assessing recruitment policies and appraisal processes is a vital foundation on which to build a workable and sustainable change to inclusivity. Taking a bespoke approach is essential too – it’s not about what works for all businesses but what works for you. Speaking to employees and taking time to understand how gender influences thinking and decisions is an important first step.   

Flexibility for everyone

To prevent women from being held back in the workplace, it’s important to acknowledge that they still tend to take on a greater deal of responsibility when it comes to childcare, and in turn provide alternative ways of working to help them be successful while raising a family. 

At the same time, businesses should ensure and emphasise that policies such as flexible working and parental leave are available to men as well as women. 

In doing so, they can help to normalise the idea that either parent can be the primary caregiver, regardless of their gender. In turn, employees will feel less pressure to conform to outdated expectations of their role within the family. 

And so, family-friendly work policies create freedom for everyone, hence why they are crucial to our gender equality strategy at Pinsent Masons. Our firm was recognised for the fourth time running by The Times Top 50 Employer for Women 2020 for our work in this area.

Businesses should also strive to reduce the tendency towards presenteeism, where employees feel that they must be physically visible at all times. Where possible, senior management should practise flexible working, to reassure and show others that their work will still be recognised if they choose to do the same.

Overall, we must demonstrate that success is not innately gender dependent. Businesses play an instrumental role here: through careers fairs, outreaching and mentoring schemes, they can speak to women and tell them, as Kamala Harris has said: “You are powerful and your voice matters.”

Stuart Affleck is director of Brook Graham at Vario from Pinsent Masons LLP