Why aren’t there enough women in Executive Teams?
And what can women do NOW to ensure the storming of the boardroom happens?
As a coach to many senior women and the founder of the RISE Empowering Women’s Programme, this is a key debate that I regularly encounter. In a whole variety of organisations that we work with, the route to the boardroom is littered with obstacles for women, some external and some internal. However, after 15 years of working intensively in this field, I had hoped it was improving.
In 2018 I remember reading a shocking report by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy of excuses as to why there are so few women in the boardroom. I was aghast as I read some of the excuses that had been given.
“I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment”
“There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex”
“Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board”
“Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?”
“My other board colleagues wouldn’t want to appoint a woman on our board”
“I can’t just appoint a woman because I want to”
Some of those sound more like comments from the 1950’s rather than 3 years ago – but have things changed in the last few years? I wish I could say ‘yes’ but the signs are not looking promising.
As it stands, there are six female CEOs in FTSE 100 companies, compared to ninety-four men and, sadly, this is the same number as there were between 2017 and 2019. Across the FTSE 350 there are only seventeen women in CEO positions. Therefore, it is clear that some of the strategies that have been introduced to accelerate gender parity have not been working, in particular, quotas, which often lead to tokenism or the appointment of Female Non-Executives, which is some progress, but doesn’t address the internal promotion issue.
It isn’t all bad news though – organisations such as Deloitte have shown that it is possible to speed up the rate of change and even managed to increase women’s representation on Deloitte’s Global board to 30% in 2019 from 16% the previous years through structural changes and a rigorous effort to ensure women replaced men and that talented women are given more opportunities in the leadership sphere. Clearly, the last 18 months have affected all organisations through the pandemic, but it will be interesting to see the figures as we emerge in the next year or two.
Interestingly, nearly every organisation we work with have declared that Diversity and Inclusivity are priorities for them, so we know the topic is high on the agenda. We have worked with many of them to understand that focusing on diversity as opposed to inclusivity often means we are focusing too much on metrics and not putting the spotlight sufficiently on an inclusive culture that really gives the opportunities to everyone in an authentic way.
But what is the solution?
Whilst organisations need to work harder on changing protocols for developing and promoting women, our experience in coaching them has also shown us that there are many internal factors that inhibit women from achieving the success that they desire for example.
Limiting beliefs – the majority of women that we work with have some form of internal belief, or “faulty programming” that gets in the way of them applying for their dream job. Helping them to understand how to re-programme these beliefs is critical to increase job applicants.
Guilt – many women who have families speak of the guilt they experience, if they go to work and chase a career that people perceive them to be bad mothers, yet if they do go out to work, they feel guilty they are not spending sufficient time with their children or being a good wife or partner. Parental coaching can really help here.
Ensuring that women help women – many organisations argue that there shouldn’t be women only programmes however women do have specific issues that they need to discuss and having a forum that supports these frank discussions can be key to building confidence
Fear – for many women there is inherent fear, fear of success, fear of failure, or fear of exposing themselves as not being up to the job. Whilst this is also an issue for men, for women it is amplified as often they are in the spotlight as a minority.
And finally, neuroscience has now shown us that women are more risk averse than men so if there is a job posted and they don’t feel confident they have all the criteria they are less likely to apply than their male counterparts. Hence, organisations finding it harder to get gender parity in shortlisting.
And for organisations…
The first thing is to obviously challenge any precedents or biases from senior leadership.
There are some obvious initiatives to be put in place and any organisation who doesn’t have these will struggle with their gender balance, and here are a few:
Ensure that bias is reduced in recruitment, by checking role profiles are gender-friendly and ensure that board positions require half of the shortlist to be women (even if you do have to encourage more female applications).
Put in place a rigorous intervention to ensure that women are exposed early to meetings, materials, and stakeholders that will help them to understand more about how it feels to be on the board or in the senior leadership team.
Recognising it is less likely that women will have previous C-level experience and challenging whether this is an essential attribute – otherwise this can lead to a vicious circle of making it more difficult for women to get the role without C-Suite experience.
Encourage retention by ensuring there is a truly flexibly working programme – including at C-Suite.
Implement maternity transition coaching so that women can smoothly re-enter the workforce and ensure that promotions are still offered when on maternity leave (my daughter was recently invited to apply for one on maternity which showed the dedication of her manager to keep her career level).
Ensure that all women are offered mentors at management level as this is a particular point in their career when they can get stuck.
Ensure that managers understand how important it is to encourage women to have a fully developed career plan.
Have a strong Women’s development programme that allows women to discuss the issues that they are facing and challenge their inner beliefs and have the confidence to apply for senior positions. This programme should have a strong emphasis on gravitas and networking to help them make a strong impression at senior level.
Make the results public, it is so discouraging for anyone of any diversity to walk past a board room and see members all of the same sex and diversity – so even if they can’t see someone like them at the moment if there are some figures to show action is ongoing.
And finally, any woman currently in a Senior Position who moves on to another role should do everything that they can to ensure a woman is recruited as her successor.
Understanding these challenges, being open to finding creative solutions and recognising the qualities that women bring to the board is the only way to ensure we accelerate the rate of change – apparently if we continue at the rate we are going at, it will be 30 more years before we achieve gender parity – are you prepared to wait that long? I know I am not.