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Wanted: more women in senior roles

To ensure more women occupy senior roles, companies need to rethink their workplace culture, recognise unconscious bias and ensure that opportunities are available to all.

Statistics show that organisations that employ more women in leadership roles enjoy stronger financial performance. That’s just a fact, says Brenda Trenowden CBE, Global Chair of the 30% Club, which campaigns for greater representation of women at board level.

For example, in 2018, Harvard Business Review discovered that venture capital firms that, ‘increased their proportion of female partner hires by 10% saw, on average, a 1.5% spike in overall fund returns each year and had 9.7% more profitable exits.’ No wonder more companies are recognising diversity as an economic imperative, as well as a moral one. 

Diversity leads to better business outcomes

Happily, their customers are beginning to demand and expect it, too, says Trenowden. “Many of our members are told by their clients: ‘Our customers are diverse — so how can you relate to us if your teams aren’t?’ Essentially, companies are realising that, if they employ a group of similar-looking people who sit around agreeing with each other, they won’t be challenged enough or incentivised to explore different approaches. Evidence shows that a more diverse group leads to better decision-making and better business outcomes.”

Nevertheless, many companies still display a depressing lack of women at senior levels. If there was just one reason for this, it would be easy to fix, says Trenowden. But it’s more complicated than that. “For example, certain industries don’t attract women because of a perception that it won’t be easy for them to succeed and progress. That perception is often wrong, but it can be hard to change.”

Fighting unconscious bias and training managers

Unconscious biases can also be found in people and processes, so when these are uncovered they need to be challenged. For example, job adverts that use certain words (which might be thought of as ‘masculine’) may deter women applicants.

“This is why smart companies are now running their adverts through software to ensure that the language isn’t overly gendered,” notes Trenowden. “Now, there’s an argument that women should be encouraged to put themselves forward for more jobs and take more risks. Equally, managers need to be better trained to encourage and support the careers of individual team members.”

Those managers also need to understand that women will present differently to men, and not confuse male ‘confidence’ for ‘competence’. “There may be a huge buy-in for diversity at the top of the organisation, but to cascade it down to managers who have always ‘done things a certain way’ requires real investment,” she says.

Challenging stereotypes and changing workplace culture

Stereotypes need to be challenged too. “Because of the way we have been socialised, all of us have certain views about what leaders look like,” Trenowden points out. “And, typically, we imagine men because that’s what we’ve seen more often. Yet, once more female role models become normalised, that view will change.”

To really tackle the diversity and inclusivity problem head-on — at all levels — companies need to fundamentally shift their workplace culture. “That gets to the heart of it,” insists Trenowden. “Companies can run as many diversity initiatives as they like, but if they haven’t got a good, healthy, inclusive culture, where everyone has equal opportunities, no changes are going to stick.”

Diagnosing the diversity problem is the first step

Take attitudes towards job flexibility, for example. There may be a temptation to assume that women will always crave flexibility, because they have traditionally occupied care-giver roles. Yet some men crave work/life balance too, but may worry that asking for parental leave will be a career-limiting move. “It would be great for men to have the same experience as women,” argues Trenowden. “We don’t ask men: ‘You have four kids. How do you balance work and family life?’ Maybe we need to ask that a bit more.”

Thankfully, Trenowden has had many conversations with corporate leaders that show there is a real willingness to address this issue. “Every company is different,” she says. “So, the first thing they need to do is spend time diagnosing where their diversity problems are — and why they have them.”

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