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Gender inequality: Where have all the women gone? By Lucie Benson

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With research suggesting that the amount of women in senior management roles is now declining, is gender inequality still a major issue among today’s workforce? Where are all the women missing from the top jobs? Lucie Benson reports.


Despite the prolific rise of flexible working and numerous attempts by many organisations to ensure equal opportunities amongst their workforce, it would appear that there is still a long way to go for women who want to work their way to the top and assume a leadership role within the corporate world.

In fact, some research published in March, commissioned by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), shows a sharp fall of over 40 percent in the number of female senior managers working in major UK businesses over the last five years. The study found that in 2002, 38 percent of women occupied senior manager level posts within the FTSE 350 companies, compared to just 22 percent this year.

PwC highlighted the cost of childcare as one of the possible reasons for this, as well as the fact that more and more women are going into business for themselves these days after discovering that, if they stay in the corporate world, they will inevitably hit that very much in-tact “glass ceiling” before too long.

In another report by the Equal Opportunities Commission, published earlier this year, it was found that 6,000 women are missing from the 33,000 top spots in the workplace. The survey showed that women account for only 10 percent of the senior judiciary and 12 percent of senior police officers, amongst others.

Following on from these findings, it was again suggested that women may be going it alone, after statistics showed that over one million women in the UK are self-employed, with that figure rising steadily.

Inflexible cultures

Prowess is a network that offers support to women starting their own business. Jackie Brierton, policy director at the organisation, views the PwC report as “worrying” and blames inflexibility amongst companies.

“There are huge inequalities with women coming through at board and CEO level, in terms of senior leadership roles,” she remarks. “There are a whole range of issues that apply to this. One is that, in many companies, particularly perhaps the larger ones, there is still a culture of inflexibility. It is worth pointing out though, that a more flexible work structure actually suits a lot of men as well as women. Companies that have taken this on board seem to be reporting beneficial results in terms of morale and performance.”

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the CIPD, points out that, following on from their own research, female leaders are all too often set up to fail. “Due to limited opportunities open to female leaders, many are forced to take the more difficult jobs in organisations with a history of poor performance, perpetuating the myth that women are poor performers in senior positions.”

“Due to limited opportunities open to female leaders, many are forced to take the more difficult jobs in organisations with a history of poor performance, perpetuating the myth that women are poor performers in senior positions.”

Dianah Worman, diversity advisor, CIPD

Worman warns organisations that they could be missing out on female talent when women choose to leave corporate life and start their own businesses. “The growth in the number of successful small businesses owned by women goes someway to indicate their business and leadership capabilities, and highlights the talent other large organisations are missing,” she remarks. “So old fashioned attitudes are not only unfair and discriminatory towards women, but they leave organisations shooting themselves in the foot.”

Claire Collins, managing director of Violet May Ltd, a company that manufactures business accessories for women, has first-hand experience of setting up her own business, as well as encountering “chauvinistic” attitudes in the past.

Prior to setting up Violet May, she worked for an American company in the USA for seven years. She says she never felt held back by her gender there because of the immense legislation culture over there. However, when she returned to Europe, still only in her late 20s, she found attitudes very different.

“I came back here to set up the European effort of the company and I found that to be a shock to the system, because I hadn’t realised how chauvinistic British business was in contrast to the US,” she comments. “It was like an awareness of how I was being perceived and it took a lot of hard work to get taken seriously because of my age and/or gender. I think that it is important, as a woman, not to get caught up in gender issues. I am a business person and I happen to be female. I can’t say that I have experienced not having my career advanced because I am female, but I know that for many women it has been, and I felt a bit of it here.”

After setting up her own business, Collins created the Violet May Creative Seed Fund, to support female entrepreneurs. “As a company, our brand is all about creating fabulous stuff for women in business, but I felt it important to support our own community. So a percentage of profits at the end of each trading year will go into the creative seed fund and we will hold a business plan competition where female creatives that are looking for seed capital can come along and pitch their idea and we will award that money to an up and coming business woman.”

Culture change

So what can be done to support women who do want to make it to the top of the corporate ladder? James Treager, senior consultant at the Roffey Park, a charitable trust that provides training and development for organisations, says that it is about changing organisational culture. “It is looking at how organisations might be better and more effective if they ran on more flexible and creative lines,” he suggests. “It is challenging how people think and behave. If women stay in organisations, they tend to face being marginalised and isolated. They have to fight for legitimacy and to be taken seriously.”

However, he adds that it can often be a challenge for both men and women. “It is difficult for anybody who isn’t prepared to adhere to a traditional and narrow set of behaviours that relate generally to men,” he remarks. “So that is men who think differently but it is also a lot of women who want to live their lives focusing on other things besides just how successful they are at work.”

“It’s about looking at the cultures of the organisation and making sure that flexible working is built in and that there is a route for women to talk about the issues that they are coming up against.”

Jackie Brierton, policy director, Prowess

The CIPD’s Worman says that businesses must take action to enable achievement, rather than sitting back and hoping for the best. “Organisations need to open doors to the leadership capabilities of both halves of the population, regardless of the performance of the organisations,” she states. “Being prepared in this way will give employers access to a larger pool of talent, it will enable them to select the best person for the job regardless of sex, and it will go some way to help organisations avoid crisis situations.”

Brierton suggests that having specific programmes in place can help. “Many companies are leading the way by having progressive management programmes, which are particularly focussed on women and on people who work in large companies that have internal management networks. It gives them peer support and provides them with personal development opportunities and confidence building.

“It’s about looking at the cultures of the organisation and making sure that flexible working is built in and that there is a route for women to talk about the issues that they are coming up against,” she adds.

Unfortunately it would appear that gender inequality is still very much present in today’s workforce and woman are finding it more difficult than ever to reach the top. However, creating a more open and flexible culture within organisations may go some way to balance the gender issue out, as Worman suggests: “We are trying to expose what is going on and why it is happening so that we can get better at correcting it; we can’t just think that it is about numbers and it will automatically sort itself out. So we are trying to get people to work together in a more open environment and fit in with each other, which they have got to do.”

5 Responses

  1. What is the issue here?
    OK, less women in senior jobs than expected that much I understand.

    The only thing I don’t really understand is what is the issue? Women are choosing to work for themselves rather than others – what’s wrong with that?

    What is the impact on the performance and profitability of business because of these choices?

    That’s the question never addressed by these laughable pieces of “research”.

    Equality for equality’s sake is a nonsense – assuming that (as the piece here suggests) fewer women apply for top jobs, then is it a surprise that fewer women have top jobs?

    Where is the evidence that this is a bad (or good) thing? There is none, expect anecdotal assumptions that “better balanced board rooms are better for business” – which is unquantified and unmeasured.

    I am not suggesting that women in senior jobs are undesirable – I’m just not convinced that junk like this makes the case very well that it is desirable.

  2. It works both ways
    Please do not put all the blame on men. Yes there are men that see women as a threat but that is not all of us. There are women who are just as bad as some men in their attitude to sex discrimination. Only recently I was asked at interview by a woman didn’t I find it strange working in what is predominately a female environment?

    A comment that has been made to me in the past by women, is, that other women already in Senior Positions are often the biggest obstacle to the advancement of other woman they don’t want to lose their place a queen bee.

    I know this may sound a sexist comment it has no intention of being so, but there are women who have been happy being the high flyer when they are younger but are happy to have the home and the kids or set up a small business that has limited pressures as they get older.

    Again a comment that has been made to me, on a number of occassions by women I know is why should I drive myself into the ground with a high pressured job when ****** earns enough to keep us in this life style and I have got my business to keep me happy.

    With 73% of the membership of the CIPD being female how many women are being consider for the role of the Director – general of the CIPD.

    If you look at HR you could say where have all the men gone?

  3. Studies on women in senior management
    Thanks for your comments about the article, Juliet. The reason for the focus on women is because it is based on two significant pieces of research, mentioned at the start of the article, looking into the decreasing number of women in senior management positions. As the title suggests, the article followed on from these studies, to find out the reasons for the lack of women in senior management roles.

    Best wishes,

    Lucie Benson
    Features Editor

  4. Will there be a balancing article?
    >>>is gender inequality still a major issue among today’s workforce?>>>

    If this is the question I dont understand the authors decision to only focus on women unless there was some other motive.

    Will this article and question be balanced by an article examining gender inequality in HR – specifically “Where are all the men missing from the HR jobs?”

  5. Gender Equality
    Two comments:

    First, why should anyone be surprised that flexible working conditions are attractive to both men and women? That has always been a concern to me, especially when various lobbygroups are pursuing this particular goal for women. I have an amazing amount of flexibility in my work, albeit as a contractor, and that is of great value to me. I know from speaking with other contractors who just happen to be women, that we share the enjoyment of such an opportunity.

    My second point is that from my discussions with many women managers, one of the major reasons they do not wish to pursue employment into more senior management positions, is that they do not wish to become party to the politicking that is often endemic in a large number of organisations. I don’t know about the UK, but in New Zealand this is a common point of concern when discussing the topic. The same as the author of your article, I am not sure what the remedy might be. It is a mirror situation to people going into politics in my country………they are new but have a burning desire to pursue some objective for the betterment of mankind. But when they get to [Wellington in my case] the party machine wheels them in and if we are lucky we get to read or hear their maiden speech and that’s it for a couple of years if not terms. Keep working on this, because society needs a solution, not just women. Cheers.

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