Diversity | Five lessons we learnt from three exceptional women in leadership

Five lessons we learnt from three exceptional women in leadership
Five lessons we learnt from three exceptional women in leadership

In October, Tiger Recruitment hosted a webinar on the topic of women in leadership.

Each panellist is a remarkable woman, well-known in their chosen fields: Denise Wilson OBE is Chief Executive at the Hampton-Alexander Review, an independent report backed by the government which focusses on women’s participation on FTSE 350 boards; Emma Sinclair MBE, the Cofounder of EnterpriseAlumni and the youngest person to ever float a company on the London Stock Exchange; and Dr Sam Collins, a leading global voice on women’s empowerment and equality.

While many incredible insights were discussed on the day, there were five key lessons for employers and HR professionals who are looking to improve the number of women in managerial positions within their companies shared by the panel.

The state of play

While increasing the number of female leaders may not be seen as a priority in the midst of a global pandemic (!), it’s this type of thinking that, in turn, may exacerbate the existing inequalities between women and men in the workplace, such as the pay and opportunities they’re offered. Unfortunately, the pandemic has gone on to highlight some of these inequalities for women in both their work and home life (including caring responsibilities and the burden of household chores). If the progress of women in the workplace isn’t tracked, they will ultimately lose out in the coming years.

Of course, the situation has improved dramatically in recent years – according to Denise, when the Hampton-Alexander Review (formerly the Davies Review) started in 2011, a third of FTSE 350 businesses wanted to change, a third were on the fence and a third were opposed to hiring women to boards. Now, 33% of FTSE 100 companies have women on their boards in the UK.

However, other areas are lacking. The number of female CEOs from 2017 to 2019 remained flat and, anecdotally, many of these placements were similar (missing, on the whole, women of colour, LGBTQI+ and those who are differently abled).

So, what can companies do to help change this moving forward? On to lesson number one.

1. COVID is not an excuse to put the foot on the break

Due to COVID-19, the UK government has paused compulsory Gender Pay Gap reporting for businesses this year. The government is sending the wrong message to investors and the business world by saying this no longer matters, as you can’t change what you don’t measure. There are similar signals in the world of entrepreneurship, such as the government’s Future Fund, launched to provide debt to UK startups, who are not tracking diversity in funding applications. According to Emma, “when only 1% of VC funding in 2019 went to female founders, there is an urgent need to ensure that the UK funds innovations from a broader range of founders.”

So, what can be done?

On an individual level, HR and line managers can make it possible for women with caring responsibilities (who therefore may be at risk of dropping out of the workforce) to talk to them about flexible-working options. If these communication channels aren’t in place, it may mean employees are stretched too thin and may be forced to take on full-time care of children or elderly relatives. Denise explains, “we're…hearing anecdotes for many, many women with young families who are qualified in big jobs, often who are breadwinners, that they are also taking on the lion’s share of the childcare at home.”

2. Celebrate traditionally ‘female’ traits in leaders

Denise cites how women leaders often combine “decisiveness and empathy”, demonstrating to younger women how these qualities are actually strengths in leadership. In a year where some women politicians, like Jacinda Ardern, have outperformed many men in leading their country through the global pandemic, the world is finally standing up and taking notice of the positive attributes women can bring to the top job.

If you’re looking to shift the dialogue in your workplace, start by addressing what Denise labels, ‘the Gender Say Gap’. Ask yourself, “are we hearing women's voices in the same degree [and] to the same strength… we're hearing men's?” If a woman’s voice isn’t valued in the same way, this is something that needs to be addressed.

3. Foster an inclusive and transparent culture

Only by creating a truly inclusive culture will businesses be able to encourage women to become leaders. While HR and management teams will play a part in this on a strategic level, ultimately, true change will come down to everybody. This is what Sam refers to as “grassroots corporate business activism”, or not being afraid to stand up and speak out when it’s warranted. Women should be able to ask questions like: ‘why didn’t I get the job?’, ‘what is the pay and bonus ratio?’, ‘do I get paid the same as him?’ Having the courage to ask difficult questions (at first) is essential to creating a transparent culture.

Similarly, HR staff must inform employees on these subjects and set up a clear communication channel. Sam points out how, “a number of myths need to be busted around money. It’s OK to ask what your peers are being paid. Once you’re armed with that information, then you can decide what to do with it.”

4. Keep in mind the lack of other underrepresented groups on boards

Even slower than the progress of women on boards is that of people from black and ethnically diverse backgrounds. Fortunately, due to the global Black Lives Matter movement, the profile of this issue in the workplace has been raised. However, the problem often starts with modern leaders being unable to hold a conversation about race, due to being uninformed about the right language to use.

As a first step, leaders can educate themselves on the appropriate ways to have these conversations and allow an open dialogue in the workplace. If an employee speaks out against current cultural practices in the workplace, listen. Then, through initiatives such as networking events, diverse hiring practices and mentoring opportunities, those from underrepresented groups may just have a better chance of a seat at the table.

5. Analyse the data to improve gender balance and the pay gap

Improving the gender pay gap and gender balance should be a key focus for firms. According to Denise, if your business wants to start its journey of inclusive leadership, the first thing to do is to measure the data at all levels. This should include:

  • How are you splitting the pay and bonus budgets?

  • Of the total opportunities in a year, how many go to women?

  • Who makes up the employees leaving the business, and are women over-represented in furlough schemes and redundancies?

Next, when looking to increase female participation on boards, look to one of many best-practice examples out there, such as Unilever and Sky. In essence, the effort shouldn’t be tokenistic. You can ensure your changes are sustainable by actively looking beyond immediate circles to seek out different groups, and hire women on boards in groups (to prevent a one in, one out mentality). Emma asserts that by looking at candidates who “don't have the same experience as someone who's been a CEO for the last 45 years but no doubt, [will] have plenty of other relevant experience”, doesn’t mean that they’re not capable of growing and scaling a business.

Finally, men must play their part too. They need to be able to point out ‘microaggressions’, stereotyping and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. Through adequate diversity training, it will ensure they are equipped with the tools to intervene in the right way and be an ally – and not simply a passive bystander.

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