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31 January 2020

Women in leadership – finding our place

Women in leadership – finding our place

It seems extremely antiquated to still be saying that the role of women in the workplace is changing - but we must remember that, throughout the vast majority of recorded civility, women were given very few opportunities to work (note: for the sake of this article, by 'work', I am referring to access to equal opportunities, paid roles, and am in no way suggesting that more traditional roles - such as running a household or raising children - are not hard work).

Even as recently as the first half of the 20th century, women's working roles were largely limited to comparatively low-paid, low-status occupations. It's incredible to think, now, that the first woman to become a doctor, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, did so in 1865 - and she had to fight hard for that right. Even when she did qualify, she wasn't able to take up a post in any hospital due to her gender, leading her to start her own and, with it, an inspiring legacy.

Someone more closely connected to our own industry, Ada Lovelace, who lived from 1815 to 1852, is widely regarded as being the first ever computer programmer. She was the first to recognise that Charles Babbage's proposed 'Analytical Machine' had applications beyond pure calculation, and published the first algorithm to be used to prove that.

Mary Shelley created sci-fi. Marie Curie discovered radioactivity. Ann Tsukamoto figured out how to isolate stem cells. Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar. Life rafts didn't exist until Maria Beasley brought them into existence. My point is, remarkable women have littered the past few hundred years regardless of the societal norm, which has pushed the slow march towards workplace equality forwards. (It's important to acknowledge, here, that most of these women were white and cisgender, and that opportunities for non-white, non-gender-conforming women continue to be lessened even further. These are not experiences that I am qualified to speak on, but I do want to stress that it's important to remember this.)

What's strange, to me, about workplaces that still don't embrace the role that women play at work, is what they're missing out on. According to data from KSA Group, which surveyed more than a million SMEs, is that those with a mix of both men and women on their leadership boards were the least likely to fail. In fact, the insolvency rate was 49% higher for firms with male-only directors on the board.

But businesses are slow on the uptake. Of the 842 active companies on the Fortune 1000, women hold only 18.8% of board seats - although this is an increase from 17.7% in 2014, and 14.6% in 2011. Interestingly, over 55% of the companies that became inactive in the index had one or no women on their boards. Additionally, when Fortune 500 companies were ranked by the number of women on their boards, those in the highest quartile in 2009 reported a 42% greater RoS and a 53% higher RoE than the others.

Most business leaders will claim that they are equal opportunity employers and that gender, race and sexual orientation don't matter - it's the person who's most qualified that counts. This is great to hear, but the playing field isn't level. There are rarely going to be as many women applying for leadership roles, in particular, as men. There are a few reasons for this including discouragement at early stages (from families, partners or schools), prejudice making it more difficult to advance (both general sexism that a woman can't be a good leader, and the assumption that she will drop her role at some point to have a family), unfair pay and a lack of confidence.

The first three are, very slowly, changing - there are increasing numbers of of programmes and resources in place to encourage girls into a huge variety of roles from a young age, including traditionally male-dominated sectors that fall into STEM categories, and most modern families want their children to follow their career dreams regardless of their background. The more businesses are exposed for paying women less than their male counterparts, the more that, too, changes - although we still have a long way to go. Encouraging women to be more confident, especially as leaders, is a bit trickier to address because what we really need, for that to improve, is appropriate role models.

When I first became part of the OP industry, I was warned that it was fairly traditional and male-dominated; however, two years down the line, I'm thrilled to know a series of inspiring women in leadership roles who are doing great things. There's not enough of them, but that is set to change, and widening the talent pool at the top end of a business sends the signal to future female leaders that you care about them and want their input.

For me, Amy Hutchinson becoming the head of BOSS in 2019 was a huge deal - she's a young woman who is hugely knowledgable and confident in her position as the face of a historic trade association with a long legacy. All I've ever heard is positive feedback about her since she took over from the well-loved Phil Lawson, and my hope for women future leaders is that they now have another role model to look up to on top of the many other inspiring female figures we're fortunate to have.

It was wonderful to see, at November's 'Industry Leaders Meet Future Leaders' event, that the gender split was almost exactly even - proof there's no shortage of women entering the industry, or wanting to become leaders within it. Following that, the next Leaders of the Future conference on 26 March is set to offer further guidance, advice and encouragement, and I hope that the women who attend inspired to evolve, be assertive and confident, and continue blazing trails for future - more diverse -  generations.


Nell Walker

Committee Member, Leaders of the Future 


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