Getting to the top: women in senior management

Last week I met Sarah Day who is the head of Finance and Projects group at DLA Piper, Leeds which has been providing legal services for over 200 years. I asked her what helped her to become the first female Managing Partner and elected member of DLA Piper’s International LLB Board.

Her response was that she was brought up with the belief that you can achieve anything regardless of gender. And that a strong and supportive network enables her to do what she does. Her passion and enthusiasm for her work was clearly evident.

Why aren’t there more women in senior positions?

Barriers to getting to the top include: the male dominated culture and attitude at senior level,  those who have children may get stuck if they returned part-time and can’t see a route for advancement, whilst some will chose a less senior role to give a better balance  (Women Matter: Making the Breakthrough McKinsey 2012)

Similarly more men in senior roles and their attitudes, lack of flexible working opportunities, culture and lack of female role models are cited as barriers to women progressing ( Women in Banking 2012  ILM report) An earlier study also cited maternity and childcare-related issues, low confidence and career aspirations in women progressing (Ambition and Gender at Work, ILM 2011). The latter is supported by a study which showed that among young women who have entered the workforce in the UK only half believe that they will rise to the top with their current employer as compared to 73% of males (PwC 2012)

Balancing work and family responsibilities, childcare and lack of senior or visibly successful female role model are cited as  contributory factors (What Holds Women Back? ) together with and long hours and hard work ( Accenture 2011)

The business case for women in senior management

It seems surprising that as women make up half the population and are as talented and qualified as men that there needs to be a business case. Women add emotional intelligence, bring new and different perspectives to board level decision (Harvey Nash 2012) leading to new ideas.

Companies with a significant number of women in senior management experienced better finan­cial performance (Women Matter, McKinsey & Company, 2007Catalyst  2007) are more prof­itable than their peers in terms of returns on assets and investment (The Conference Board of Canada, May 2002) and have a more  objective, active boards with greater participation in decision-making and stron­ger management oversight  (Adams and Ferreira 2009)

Getting more women on boards

Globally, the proportion of women in senior management has fallen from 24% in 2009 to 20% (Grant Thornton International Business Report 2011). In  2003, a  40% gender quota was introduced in Norway, helping to  boost the percentage of women in boardrooms from  7% in 2003 to 44% in 2008 ( Hoel 2008) with countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain adopting similar approaches.

In the UK, at the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms.  Lord Davies recommended that companies should aim for their boards to be 25% female by 2015. At the end of February 2011, Cranfield  found that the proportion of female directors on FTSE 100 company boards had risen to 15% and predicted that this could rise to 27% by 2015 if the changes continue.

Progress continues to be slow with 63 % of companies having at least 20% of different initiatives in place as part of their gender diversity programme (Women Matter: Making the Breakthrough McKinsey 2012). At current rate of improvement, women will account for under 20% of seats on Europe’s executives committees 10 years from now (Women Matter: Making the Breakthrough McKinsey 2012).

Do women want the top jobs?

Senior roles involve long and unsocial hours and extensive travel and often come at a time in a woman’s life when she is having children or bringing up a young family. Juggling the demands of work, family and other commitments means that women are often pulled in multiple conflicting directions all at once. It’s a time when women are faced with and will have to make some tough decisions.  The dilemmas of being a working mother is captured by Janine di Giovanni .

In her controversial report, Feminist Myths and Magic Medicine: flawed thinking behind calls for further equality legislation, Catherine Hakim writes, ‘In Britain half of all women in senior positions are child-free, and a lot more of them have nominal families with a single child and they subcontract out the work of caring for them to other women.’ She calls on ministers to drop policies pushing for flexible working hours, more time off for fathers, and more places for women on company boards and concludes that the battle for equality is over and any pay gap is down to women’s lifestyle choices. Success in business whether you are male or female depends on commitment to work and the willingness to put in long hours.

I don’t believe that it is as black and white as that. Women do have better opportunities and choices. Some may chose to stay and home and bring up baby, some may chose to juggle family with work and some may chose not have children or when do have a network that supports them so that they can continue to progress their careers.  Using one’s values, purpose, passions, and priorities can help when making choices and to give reassurance that the correct choice was made at the time.

Getting to the top is not for everyone. It requires a strong desire and will to be there, effective leadership, resilience, stamina and good networks. Those who chose to go there, can be seen as cultural change agents paving the way for future generations.

What’s your take on this? Love to hear from the men out there.

What’s your experience of being a working mother? What choices did you make?

Hoel, M. (2008). The quota story: five years of change in Norway. Women on Corporate Boards of Directors: International Research and Practice, Eds. S. Vinnicombe, V. Singh, R. Burke, D. Bilimoria, & M. Huse : Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.


About verawoodhead

I'm an executive coach, leadership facilitator and learning & development consultant working with managers and leaders to develop the skills and behaviours to inspire performance and drive results; achieve promotion ; make successful career changes, be resilient and thrive at work. Within organisations, I help to facilitate better conversations, design learning interventions which deliver practical and lasting solutions aligned to business strategy and goals. Connect with me on Twitter @verawoodhead
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10 Responses to Getting to the top: women in senior management

  1. As a woman in her 40’s who doesn’t have the constraints of a family to hold me back, I have to say that the biggest limiting factors probably lie with myself. I lack confidence and the necessary drive to keep striving for the top. I have been in a leadership role for a number of years, but have been burnt somewhat recently which has doused some of the fire to aspire to bigger and better things.

    • verawoodhead says:

      Lack of confidence is common and well documented in all the studies that have been undertaken. There are many initiatives in place to help deal with this – leadership development programmes and developing resilience, using the help of a coach, being mentored by someone more senior, networks for women only and those which encourage men in senior roles to hear about the female persepctives….have you access to any of these where you work?
      Sorry to hear that your fire has been doused – have you been able to share and discuss this with someone? Hope you get your mojo back

  2. Clare Manning says:

    Choices are key – I chose to work part time after both my kids were born (3 days moving up to 4 days). I also chose to go for promotions and held a senior role for 8 years. And then I chose to leave and set up my own business where I feel I have more scope to bring all my skills into play and have more flexible time with the kids. I didn’t think an executive position would suit me or the family and preferred to create my own version as a business owner. Good to reflect on choices – thanks for the post!

  3. Pingback: Women matter 2012: Making the breakthrough

  4. heidi says:

    It is very hard to be a working mother when your child is still very small. Those first few years are critical in any child’s development and the level of care, comfort and needs demanded from you are very high.
    Switching over from being a mother to being a professional in the workplace is also tough. I worked in a female dominated workplace and thought my colleagues would be understanding and sympathetic to m predicament – especially as I had no back-up from a husband, or mother that lived close-by or extended family. I relied solely on my domestic worker and the thought of placing the care of my small child (under one year) in the hands of someone else was terrifying but financial demands were that I had to. And I soon found that my colleagues were more critical of my work performance and largely unsympathetic especially when my child got sick and I went home to care for him, take him to the doctor and sort out his needs.
    What society fails to understand is that sometimes women do not have choices. Choice becomes a luxury (so does time and sleep). It is a question of providing for the needs of a household.

    • verawoodhead says:

      Hi Heidi, thank you for sharing your story. It’s a real shame when others criticise rather than help and support – it demonstrates a lack of empathy and awareness…and even more so when those involved are women. Has your situation improved?

  5. I’m not sure I would wish the juggling I had to do earlier in my career on anyone (however being a mother is the best thing in my life, I love my job and I have had a diverse and fascinating career to date – I know that I am very lucky). I made a conscious decision to transfer into an industry more tolerant of mothers when my boys were small (I was even able to breast feed in Board meetings!), but I know that I was fortunate in being able to do so. I then tumbled into the embryonic online world – it was very tolerant of individuals and valued them for what they contributed, rather than being tied to conventional norms. I returned to Financial and Professional Services after being approached to do so – fantastic opportunities with relatively blank sheets of paper on which to create an offering to enhance the business, but for the mainpart they are conservative and traditional environments which are harder for working mums. I did have to rely on and pay for superb childcare – for the record and knowledge of other mothers: it really hurts leaving your child with someone else whom you know will probably enjoy watching your son/daughter’s first steps, see them tying their shoelace for the first time and/or hear their song when they come home from school, before you can. I have always been the primary bread-earner in our household and hence I can understand Heidi’s view that, for some, working is necessary rather than being desired. However, we do have choices as to what we do and how/where we live. I worry at times that organisations and institutions forget that we are people first and employees second. It is possible to have a successful business and provide an environment that is supportive of mothers (and all the other groups in a diverse workforce), but it relies on trust, understanding, appreciation and upholding strong values. For the individual: compromising what you hold dear only results in tears at work as well as at home. Whoever coined the phrase “having it all” in relation to working mothers was deluded – some things have to give, usually the working mother’s sleep and her time to do things, that appeal to her, that are not related to either her work or the family.

    • verawoodhead says:

      Thank you for sharing your experiences Kate and good to hear that you had early positive experiences with family friendly organisations.I agree that we do have choices and should respect the choices that women make. I took a year off when each of my children were born and have to be honest in saying that I looked forward to going back to work. I couldn’t go back to my original post beacuse it was a “full time role” so was essentially demoted! I took it and then moved on from there.
      I do see a lot of talent that has gone to waste because working practices have not been flexible and family friendly enough to support women who have children. And the longer women are out of the work, the harder it becomes to get back into work.
      ‘Having it all’ – I think it’s about being clear about what is that you really want and is aligned with your core values. And be supported in that decision without being judged – whether you work full time, part time or stay at home

  6. Pingback: Women matter 2012: Making the breakthrough | Curt Rice

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