In the West End hit show Emilia, written about a poet whose work, four centuries ago, was suppressed by those in authority around her, the lead character declares: “We are only as powerful as the stories we tell.” Set in Shakespeare’s time, the play has had modern audiences cheering, both at the Globe theatre where it opened and now at the Vaudeville on the Strand, where its run recently ended.
We do need some better stories to tell – but in 2019 there seem to be a few battles to fight first. Women at work have been patient. We have waited a long time for change. We have been polite. We have put up with some feeble excuses. And, while there has been some progress in making workplaces fairer and more meritocratic, that progress has been modest and slow to arrive.
Women are still under-represented at senior levels. Businesses report startling gender pay gap figures, and the government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review exposed shortcomings in the representation of women in the FTSE 100 and 250.
British business is still too “male, pale and stale”. Male business leaders have nodded and said some of the right things about diversity and the need to appoint more women to senior roles. They have even agreed that there is a “business case” for doing so. They have inched their way towards meeting some limited targets. But they have not done nearly enough.
As Charlotte Valeur, the new chair of the Institute of Directors, told the Guardian earlier this year: “Talent of all kinds is out there, but you have to consciously look for it… Do we really think that’s difficult? It’s a lie. It’s not difficult.”
What holds women back at work? Partly it is old-fashioned male prejudice. Sometimes it is an unattractive and unwelcoming culture. Many talented women simply choose to start their own business rather than stay in a hostile environment.
And sometimes “imposter syndrome” strikes – an attitude which seems to afflict many more women than men – those voices in your head which tell you “you are not good enough”, “this is not for the likes of you”, “how could you even think of going for that role?”, and so on.
I launched the WeQual awards to specifically salute the women leaders of the future and shine a spotlight on the challenges they face as they try and progress to the highest levels of business. Finalists have recently been announced, all of whom are currently working just below executive committee level and have the talent and the ambition to be the CEOs, CFOs and COOs of big organisations. No more excuses.
There is an epidemic of imposter syndrome afflicting highly capable women in British business. HR directors – male and female – have an important role to play in encouraging women to step up. They have the ability. Sometimes they just lack the self-belief.
The women we are identifying as potential award winners are not imposters. They are the hidden women of today who will be the leaders of tomorrow. And will inspire other women to follow suit.
We are only as powerful as the stories we tell.
Katie Litchfield is founder and CEO of the WeQual awards