Where are all the women in the FTSE boardrooms?

The question of why there is a distinct lack of females invading British boardrooms has been a question that many enterprise minded individuals have asked for years (Brown et al 2002). The appointment of BT Group’s Liv Garfield  as the new boss of the water company Severn Trent (Monaghan and Goodley 2013), superficially seems to highlight the change in ethos within business for women. In nearly three years, we’ve seen the business world change from 12.5% of women holding seats in boardrooms of the UK’s largest firms with 21 all male boards and the movement in 2013 to 19% of FTSE boardrooms now being female and only five all male boards (Monaghan and Goodley 2013). This is a huge step forward from 2004 in which only 9.4% of boardrooms were made up of women (Davies 2011).

Consequently, with the appointments of Carolyn McCall at easy Jet, Angela Ahrendts at Burberry and Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco, it could be suggested that women no longer have a barrier stopping them entering the boardroom (Monaghan and Goodley 2013). But the “one in one out” approach and the very slow progression (Monaghan and Goodley 2013), suggests that although corporations have changed their gender biased ways, many women are choosing to opt out of career advancement causing a lack of women in senior positions, slowing the rate of increase of the proportion of women within the boardroom (Davies 2011). This argument is furthered by Germany’s move to impose quotas on the amount of women that have to sit on their boards, as a means of bringing about radical change, ignoring societal reasons behind the pool of women progressing into the boardroom (Monaghan and Goodley 2013). Moreover, such an act undermines the pursuit of performance and quality talent within the business, forcing succession and recruitment choices from a smaller talent pool simply “to make up the numbers” lessens the hard fought battle for female equality within the workplace (Monaghan and Goodley 2013). Promotions should be earned and the business board should be made up of the right people based on their talents, experience, knowledge and competencies; gender to any extent should be irrelevant, consequently introducing quotas only strengthens the gender divide and promotes that women should be considered differently (Morrissey 2013).

Conversely if the make-up of the boardroom is to truly change sustainably and the process is to be sped up, we need to fully understand why women opt out and the factors surrounding their decision process to do so (Morrissey 2013). With very talented, competent women now progressing up to the top ranks of businesses, it could be concluded that corporations are not estopping women directly and that women, if they want to, have the drive and are talented enough to progress at the same speed as their male counterparts; the top floor of corporations are now open to women and advancement is not just possible but achievable (Morrissey 2013). Consequently, If it is not the corporations themselves stopping women progressing up the corporate ladder, then understanding the absence of equal representation within the boardroom, starts with understanding why talented women opt out and who these “lost women” are (Morrissey 2013).

As such, we need to look to the women themselves and look at their career journey and choices. The starting point of any discussion should be one that considers that male and female graduate entry into the workforce, in the UK, is relatively equal and this equality is maintained until senior management level, where women fall away (Davies 2011). The progression from graduate level, into junior management and then middle management is an equally linear timeline for men and women where they progress almost proportionately side by side; the average age of initial entry into senior management is 28years old, which is the same age that shows huge proportions of women opting out at this level or remaining within middle management for a lengthy extended time in their career (Davis 2011). Consequently, the “danger-zone” for women’s career path to stagnate has been identified as the period between 28-40years old; within this period women are less economically active, fail to progress, completely opt out of employment and take several career breaks (Morrissey 2013).

If we assume the corporation remains static and equal with its treatment of men and women, then deductively women are doing something or behaving in a different way to their male counterparts (Davies 2011). As such it is interesting to note that the average age of a first time mother giving birth in the UK is 28.1years old (ONS 2013); the same age the average UK employee sees their career take off into senior management is also the same age women drop out of the workplace indefinitely or temporarily to become first time mothers (Morrissey 2013). Deductively, there is an impasse that leads to the fair conclusion that women do not progress at the same level as their male counterparts because they have children (Morrissey 2013). There are two core strands to this impasse that this article will present, women are absent from our boardrooms because females are presented with the societal pressure that a woman can’t pursue her career and have children and that the corporate system, due to its competitiveness and performance driven ethos, is not designed to accommodate women who wish to continue pursuing their career but desire flexibility and have the added priority of their children.

The crux of the problem, is no longer the soul fault of the male biased, corporate system, which it was decades ago; success and advancement is open to any talented individual, irrespective of gender, who wants to play and commits to the “corporate game” (Morrissey 2013). However, this female empowerment and the freedom to progress up the corporate ladder, falls in direct conflict with the choice to have a child and the societal pressure women feel to prioritise their external family responsibilities above their career (Morrissey 2013).Women are brought up with the reinforced stereotype of the women who leaves her job to have a child or the woman, whose returns to work after having a child, with a change in her priorities (Morrissey 2013). This societal stereotype of the “good mother” who sacrifices her career to concentrate on her children is an accepted stereotype that feeds into our societal child centeredness and is one that is outside the control of the business world.

Women who do choose to go back into their high powered jobs, report feelings of extreme guilt for missing out on their child’s younger years and are perceived as wrongly advancing their career at the expense of the child (Mckinsey & Co 2007).  Any successful women, who has had children and achieved seniority in her career at the same time, is hailed as a rare exception and a superhero women who has achieved the impossible (Mckinsey & Co 2007). Consequently this societal pressure to choose between having a child or further your career, with many women choosing to have children, businesses face a lack of supply of women climbing up the corporate ladder into corporate management, as women tail off pursuing their family agendas; many women make the considered choice not to pursue the top roles and have a family instead (Morrissey 2013). Our society puts pressure on women to make the choice between her career and having a family (Brown et al 2002).

However, it is not just the choice to have children that automatically excludes women from the boardroom, it is the fact that on a practical level it is hard to be a mother who is focused on her child and simultaneously
focused on achieving the corporate heavy weight level, never mind sustain it into the long term; hence many corporate heavy weight women achieve the top level and then chose to opt out to have children, just at a later date (Mckinsey & Co 2007). Corporate progression requires hard work, sacrifice and ambition; the very top of organisations require lengthy hours, focus and for many, the job becomes is their lives; the practicalities of having children does not fit in with this pursuit (Morrissey 2013). Women, who chose to have children, can’t effectively pursue this lifestyle without neglecting and sacrificing the time spent with their children, relying on a strong extended support network and being judged by society, as a mother pursing her career at the expense of her child, regardless of the lifestyle or financial benefits (Morrissey 2013). It is only with the right support network and partner support that women can expect to have children and pursue the corporate dream, a resource that isn’t available to all mothers.

Feminists would advance the question, why should women automatically sacrifice their careers and not the men? Again this is a choice that is open to all families, men are just as entitled to focus on the children and allow their wives to reach for their careers. Such a decision will advance the career of a woman and will rising opt out figures for men (Mckinsey & Co 2007) But whilst this remains a choice and feminists can argue that men “should” do this more, many women once their baby is born, would prefer to be the one to stay home and look after the child, after all they carried it and bonded with it for 9months (Davies 2011). Moreover, women are presented with the societal norm that women should be the ones to play the dominant role in children’s early life; this is a deep rooted norm and societal expectation placed on women (Davies 2011). Furthermore, statutory law remains in favour of women taking extended maternity level and has only recently extended paternity leave for Fathers; the legal system is structure so the woman can take a career break to look after the child, not the man (Davies 2011). Moreover, the unavoidable truth is that, currently within our society, biologically females have children; as such this brings about unavoidable absences from work that men can’t compensate for.

Businesses from the beginning have to be adaptable and respond to the needs of the business. The call for a more flexible, child friendly, corporate working environment, whilst admirable, is unrealistic and uncompetitive economically (Davies 2011). That is not the nature of successful, competitive advantage driven corporate work that requires an extreme commitment to the job, a commitment that women with competing priorities cannot achieve (Davies2011).  A work place that suits mothers is not one that is productivity and profitability focused or one that is built on a lean economically viable structure. As such, these women are more suited to lower level management positions, in which a more flexible work structure can be offered and in which both competing priorities can be satisfied. Moreover, this point is further advanced, with the appearance of women within the public sector and teaching; a working environment that accommodates the working mum (Mckinsey & Co 2007).  Consequently the current corporate model, based on performance and 24hour availability forces women to either choose between their career or to have children, inevitably leading to many women opting out due to their life choice to have a baby (Mckinsey & Co. 2007).

The pursuit of equality within the boardroom, embodies the ideal that all people are treated the same (Morrissey 2013). Many advocate a change in the corporate system, one that allows working mothers to progress (Davies 2011), but encouraging women into the boardroom should not involve a relaxation of the rules and processes within an organisation in favour of women and women with children; this change threatens equality in the workplace and puts an onerous burden onto the organisation within a challenging climate (Morrissey 2013). The corporate model is no longer “male dominated” which many suggests remains an issue (Mckinsey & Co. 2007), the model simply focuses on productivity and profitability with the same opportunities available for all, women make the choice to have children and prioritise them (Morrissey 2013). They can equally chose not to have children and pursue their careers, furthermore they can also have children and pursue their career simultaneously, but inevitably only one can be the top priority (Mckinsey & Co. 2007).  This reality is one of compromise which fails on both counts and one which is a “double burden” of corporate responsibility alongside parental responsibility (Mckinsey & Co. 2007). But the reality of the situation is that women do have a choice and they control their career destination.

Once a woman decides to have a child, this decision has a direct impact on her career advancement speed. In a world where the business never sleeps, the very nature of maternity leave gives a woman a career break, which removes them from the organisation temporarily. These breaks are not taken by men, who remain able to pursue their career uninterrupted. These breaks mean women no longer can keep up to speed with the organisation, they miss out because they are physically not there, this gives men the competitive edge, to advance further through the organisation in a shorter space of time, irrespective of a woman’s competencies or skill sets; the business will not wait for her to return. Moreover, the time away from work gives many women an opportunity to re-evaluate their priorities and consider what is best for the their child/children; often putting a child first means having a job, that fits in with their needs and requirements until they are older, consequently they drop out of the rat race (Mckinsey & Co 2002).

Many theorists have purported other contributory factors to explain the impasse and absence of women within the UK boardrooms. As such, there is a view that women are simply less ambitious than men, they want more to life than their careers and they tend to undervalue their own skill sets (Trevelyan 2008). Arguably it is possible that women undervalue their skills and advance a different set of behaviour traits that make them vulnerable to missing out and being overlooked for progression (Davies 2011). However, such a view undervalues women from the very starting point and views them as shrinking violets that are unaware of their potential and need assistance to be recognised. The stereotype of the overconfident male and the women oblivious of her strengths (Trevelyan 2008) is an outdated sexist, overly simplistic starting point.

Whilst this contributory factor is plausible, it advances that the fault lies with the women, as women remain in control of this factor of their own self-confidence and personal promotion; this is something that can be changed and consequently, efforts should be concentrated on empowering women and introducing strong female corporate stereotypes (Davies 2011). In order, for women to believe they can be strong corporate figures, we need strong female role models across a variety of disciplines and occupations. Not only do we lack a large bank of female role models, but women grow up with the stereotype and societal norm of the typical woman who leaves her job in order to look after her child or a woman that returns to work, with adjusted priorities to provide for the child (Davies 2011). Consequently, female empowering can only take us so far; women within corporations face practical choices and societal pressures that men, do not. They have a choice between continuously advancing their career like the male counterparts or stepping off the corporate wheel temporarily or permanently and having a child (Mckinsey & Co 2002). However, it should be remembered, they have a choice, they chose to have a child and stop focusing on their career.

It remains easy to get caught in the argument surrounding why there is a lack of female board-members within corporations and the difficult social questions it highlights. However, as a society we also need to understand the indisputable value of women within the corporate work place, women should not just be viewed as future mothers, they can also be corporate heavy weights if they chose to be (Davies 2011). Unlike Germany, it should not be about achieving quotas, simply for numbers sake, it should be about fully understanding why we need more women at the highest level of corporations and the benefits they can our businesses offer; their value and their worth.

Lord Davies’s 2011 report highlights a long list of influential reasons, why women are not just invaluable in the work place but a crucial element of the most profitable and productive organisations in existence. A male dominated business environment lacks diversity, a key element to any successful, functioning team (Hills 2001). Women bring a different skill set and one that off sets, a stereotypical, overconfident businessman (Trevelyan 2008). Gender balanced boards are more likely to identify criteria for measuring strategy, monitor its implementation, follow conflict of interest guidelines ensure better communication and focus on additional nonfinancial performance measures, such as employee and customer satisfaction, diversity and corporate social responsibility; the symbiotic nature within the differences between men and women when exploited together are key elements to business performance (Brown et al 2002). Moreover, women enhance performance within corporations when compared to organisations that lack in female representation (McKinsey & Company, 2007).

The merit within the need for both men and women within the boardroom is they both compliment and challenge each other; one gender isn’t better than the other, they are just different (McKinsey & Company, 2007). Moreover, with women making up 6/10 top graduates, 51% of the UK population/consumer, 46% of the economically active workforce and responsible for 70% of household purchasing decisions and holding half of the UK’s wealth (Davies 2011), they are not a demographic that should remain misunderstood, constrained within society and disengaged. As such, their absence in the boardroom and the talent pool gap of women in senior management shouldn’t just be a business concern, but a societal concern. Consequently, the goal shouldn’t be to make it easier for women to progress and treat them differently; it is to understand why women stop progressing up the corporate ladder first and why women prioritise children over their careers, in a way men do not (Morrissey 2013).

Once a true understanding is reached, then businesses can focus on strategically tapping into the under-utilised pool of female talent, opening up the gates into board level by working to change the societal strain on women and to expand the stereotypical female aspiration, beyond having children and giving up their careers, “to remain competitive and respond to rapidly changing expectations and market demands” (Davises 2011). Once females progress into the board room, we should see greater diversity, not only enhancing performance but encouraging a better understanding of the female consumer, with a more effective exploitation of the demographic (Davies 2011).

Consequently, if we accept that women are faced with the choice between their career and children, it must be acknowledged that although this is an undeniable barrier, it also is factually a choice; women chose to have children and to step off the corporate ladder. They have the choice and the same opportunities available to them as their male counterparts before that point (Davies 2011). Focusing just on changing the practices of business, in order to encourage women to not only have children and to advance their career at the same time neglects the societal expectation of women as a good mother; corporate changes need to occur alongside, a change in the society(Davies 2011).

Thus Helena Morrissey, a champion of women in the boardroom, has expanded her 30% campaign, campaigning for 30% of individuals at the top of corporations to be women, into the “opportunity now campaign”, a research study that is focused not on business practices, but on understanding women’s intangible feelings within the workplace and their beliefs around their career and children (Morrissey 2013). Such a study should prove that whilst businesses have embraced equality in how they treat and recruit men and women; societal expectations and the corporate machine rarely allows women to have children and reach the boardroom. Once we understand these pressures, changing the make-up of the board room will involve challenging societal norms. Furthermore, it will require a shift in women’s priorities to value their careers equally or more so, than having children; a process which is out of the control of the corporations (Morrissey 2013).

Brown, D., Brown, D. and Anastasopoulos, V. (2002)’ Women on Boards: Not just the Right Thing . . . But the “Bright” Thing, Report. 341-02: The Conference Board of Canada, Ottawa.

Davies, M. (2011). ‘Women on Boards – Government Report’, Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/31480/11-745-women-on-boards.pdf (Accessed: 23rd November 2013)

Hills, H. 2001. Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.

Mckinsey & Co. (2007) ‘Women Matter’ , Available at http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CDkQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.mckinsey.com%2F~%2Fmedia%2Fmckinsey%2Fdotcom%2Fclient_service%2Forganization%2Fpdfs%2Fwomen_matter_oct2007_english.ashx&ei=pbGUUt-QDMKYyAP0-YDIDw&usg=AFQjCNHpmrgClYnYyWzgX-Tjqym6bBnH2A (Accessed: 26th November 2013)

Monaghan, A and Goodley, S. (2013) ‘Liv Garfield joins small team of women running blue chip businesses’ Available at:http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/nov/18/liv-garfield-bt-severn-trent (Accessed 23rd November 2013)

Morrissey, H. (2013) ‘Finally, let’s hear the truth about our top women’ Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/10454697/Helena-Morrissey-Finally-lets-hear-the-truth-about-our-top-women.html (Accessed 23rd November 2013).

Office of National Statistics. (2013) Live Births As Characterised by Mother. Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_330664.pdf (Accessed: 10th October)

Trevelyan, R. (2008) ‘Optimism, overconfidence and entrepreneurial activity’, Management Decision, (46) 7

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