Last month, I was asked what I thought was the greatest challenge to the progress of women to senior positions in the workplace.
Are there still challenges? After all, women are being appointed to board positions in ever increasing numbers. Since 2010, when a group of us assembled under Helena Morrissey’s leadership to form the steering committee of the 30% Club, the number of female-free FTSE 100 boards has fallen from 21 to one. But there are still challenges, starting with the need to boost the paltry number of women in senior executive positions. The only way to do that is to overcome the biggest hurdle of all – unconscious bias.
The Davies report in 2011 articulated four key reasons for including more women at senior levels, both executive and non-executive. Three of them were: accessing the widest talent pool (this is the single biggest reason for including women); being more responsive to the market (women make up the largest proportion of decision makers when it comes to spending money, so this is a no-brainer); and achieving better governance (for which read, get rid of groupthink by a bunch of middle class men, which the addition of women in sufficient numbers does instantly). It also cited improving performance. I am never convinced about this in its own right, as I have seen no evidence that leads me to believe talented women can affect performance better than talented men. There is probably a performance effect as well, but in my opinion it comes as a result of the other three, not independently of them.
So, for three reasons at least, I and Lord Davies agree that women at senior levels in the workplace are A Good Thing. But how to get rid of the unconscious bias that keeps them out? In my opinion we need to educate Richard – shall we call him – at every age and every stage to make sure he values the contribution women can make in the workplace and does his best to encourage their advancement.
If Richard is a chairman, then the best person to educate him is another chairman. Peer advocates, I would say, are far more powerful than any legislation.
Educating Richard becomes harder when you move into the senior executive ranks. A male chief executive is probably 40-something, has worked for longer than 20 years, been very successful and chances are that most of the women he has worked with along the way will have been in administrative jobs. Here, I would prescribe a fivefold solution (see panel below).
Before he becomes chief executive, Richard should be educated by his girlfriend/wife. Future business leaders in their 30s are often dating or married to other future business leaders in their 30s. Make sure he meets your girlfriends, hears about their careers, sees that they add value. And then race him to the top. Working for a female boss – whether it be Olivia Garfield with more than 5,000 employees or tech entrepreneur Kathryn Parsons at Decoded with fewer than 50 – is a good way to educate him.
There is only one person I can think of more powerful than a female chief executive in this quest of ours – the mother. To be honest, once Richard is past secondary school, we are all perilously close to having lost the battle to educate him.
The good news is that the younger Richard, these days, will be educated by the legions of working mothers who are heads of their households. More than 2.2m – not quite one in three – working mums are now breadwinners, a number that has almost doubled since my youngest son was born 15 years ago.
Motherhood has prompted me to reconsider a few important things about running an equal opportunity household. I used to believe strongly in single-sex education, but raising three boys has taught me that if you want to prepare boys for equality in the workplace, coeducation is a much better idea.
After all, as Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College and a passionate advocate for coeducation, says, “life is coeducational”.
I have to admit, I have not been the best role model. Ever since my three boys were born I have looked after them as best as I could, running round after them, picking up their toys, cleaning their rooms, putting meals on the table and so on.
DeAnne Julius, an early pioneer on boards in the UK, has put me right, saying: “You will be amazed how much a child as young as six can do in the house.” I came to this realisation rather late and apologise now to the women who will marry my sons one day.
If we want a different world for our daughters, then we need to educate our sons from the start. Of course, even if you have only daughters, the example you set if you look after your husband too well may result in the continuation from one generation to the next of the idea that women are there to support men and not be their equals. For that reason, stamping out unconscious bias in the workplace very much starts at home.
As you have probably gathered from reading this, I think issues of the workplace are crucial to a better performing economy, and that there is much still to be done. In fact, they are so important that I have decided to write a weekly column for Executive Appointments. You’ll also find it at ft.com/recruit. Please do Tweet me your own Top 5 lists via #MrsMList. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Five-point plan: Tips for enlightening the male CEO
Here is my first top tips list. But don’t take my word for it – tweet me yours each week at #MrsMList.
1. Nothing happens unless you pay for it. So, pay Richard (and indeed Rita) for actively helping more women reach senior ranks. All senior executives have non-financial performance goals, and a proportion of their bonus paid against them. Make the advancement of women one of those goals, and pay them if they deliver. For every senior appointment in the company, insist that as many female as male candidates are identified at long list stage. (The answer, by the way, is emphatically not all-women shortlists).
2. The fastest way to realise that women can make a business contribution every bit as good as men is to see them doing so in the flesh. Have Richard serve on industry bodies and boards you know already have brilliant women.
3. But you will only really educate Richard – and ensure he has a pipeline of talented in-house women to choose from – if his own career success is dependent on his senior female colleagues as much as it already is reliant on those women – wife, nanny and housekeeper – who do his cooking, ironing and parenting at home. And the only way to clear a path to that goal is by rooting unconscious bias – a sin of Rita as much as it is of Richard – out of your corporate culture.
4. Talk to any woman, or man for that matter, and we all want to hasten the day when, as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg puts it, there will be no female leaders, just leaders. The long- term goal needs to be that we truly reward outcomes, not inputs. (I admit I am talking out of both sides of my mouth here, given point 1, which is a bit of a short-cut). Focusing on outputs, not just pretending to, means it won’t matter whether a woman or a man – or a Martian – is behind them.
5. A shout out to the wife of any up-and-coming chief executive: do us sisters a favour by making him pull his weight at home. Once a quarter, perhaps after the rush of company results, take a long-weekend off; you deserve it. Let him balance work and family. Don’t cheat by leaving ready-cooked meals, empty laundry baskets and a tidy calendar of parent/teacher meetings, football matches and dentist appointments. He is not meant to be babysitting, he is meant to be parenting like the rest of us women who still take on the majority of that responsibility – even those like me who spend more time in the office than at home.
Mrs Moneypenny is the author of “Careers Advice for Ambitious Women”. Her new book, “Financial Advice for Independent Women”, is published by Penguin, £16.99.