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The recent independent review of women on boards, by former UK minister Lord Davies, has turned up the pressure on UK business – although some say that he has not gone far enough with the suggestion of a voluntary target of 25 per cent female representation for FTSE 100 boards by 2015.

Let us hope this target provides a shot across the bows and encourages business to change its approach to executive recruitment and development.

When I speak to business leaders, none of them say that their company actively holds women back but many say they find it very difficult to find women for senior leadership positions.

Yet we know female talent is out there. More women are entering junior management levels than men and female graduates outnumber men in universities worldwide. In the UK, 53 per cent of all undergraduates are women but this drops to about 30 per cent on MBA courses, about the level of female representation at middle to senior management levels in business.

The parallel between business schools finding it difficult to attract female students and levels of women in senior positions in business should not be ignored. The most commonly cited reason for both is the need to balance family life.

Most programmes require four to five years’ professional experience and many students undertake an MBA in their late 20s to early 30s, an age when many women plan to start a family. For many women, the commitment needed to study is not feasible.

Second, MBAs are associated with highly competitive, cut-throat environments and high-octane careers in the City or Wall Street. Stereotype or fact, this type of career is not attractive to many women.

Finally, the expense of an MBA, often costing more than £25,000, is prohibitive and women are less likely to take the financial risk. However, “risk aversion” is one of the most valued qualities in female managers and bemoaned as missing from boardrooms during the financial crisis.

What can be done to overcome these obstacles?

Business schools need to be more flexible in their admissions and mode of study. They also need to improve their marketing to women, to show them it is worth the financial risk and highlight the myriad careers outside business consulting.

And MBAs should not be viewed as shorthand for superior leadership potential. HR professionals frequently complain that business schools produce graduates full of knowledge but lacking the ability to apply it. Last year, the UK’s Institute of Leadership and Management asked HR directors in big corporations what they considered when selecting future leaders. Nearly a third said they felt the MBA was “quite ineffective” or worse at developing the personal characteristics needed for senior positions.

The point is that MBA programmes adhere to the same “male breadwinner” model of most businesses. Many women rule themselves out of the MBA route because of the above obstacles. This, when compounded by senior positions being advertised as requiring an MBA, sees very talented women deselecting themselves because they do not have the confidence that they can compete with those who do.

ILM’s research into gender and ambition reflects this, with women being less confident than men and more reluctant to put themselves forward for jobs unless they are totally confident they can do the role. With so few senior female role models, it is even harder for women to see themselves rising through the ranks.

Female talent is let down by signing up to this mode of work that does not reflect the reality of the 21st century. Life is not linear and nor should careers be. Career advancement should reflect skills and capabilities, while flexible working, job sharing and work-life balance policies also have a part to play.

If Lord Davies’s targets are to be achieved, businesses and the business schools that feed their talent pools need to change their perception of the perfect candidate.

Penny de Valk is chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management

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