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Opinion: Women in Business – the importance of equality

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Louise Palmer


By Louise Palmer and Jill Foley, joint MDs of niche consultancy 7 days

The issue of equality in the workplace is now more important than ever before, with even more planned legislation in the works to help organisations support women who want to have a family as well as a career.


This issue and the wider question of equality is so much in the public eye that it has become as much a PR issue as anything else. All organisations need to take it seriously or be seen as outdated, chauvinistic, and behind the times. At the same time, from a business point of view, by not providing the flexibility and support for women who want both a career and a family (and why should the two be exclusive?) you’re effectively cutting yourself off from a large and potentially very talented section of the workforce.

In recent years there has been a sense that industry is “resting on its laurels” because the situation of women in the workplace has been seen to improve. However, at senior levels, the actual statistics show that improvements still leave a lot to be desired. A case of ‘lip service’ being paid to equality of opportunity and the reality of the situation a façade.

The recent Cranfield research provided us with some very interesting results, suggesting that good corporate governance is actually linked to the presence of women on the board.

At 7 days we have worked with a number of high-profile blue chip clients in the FTSE 100 list and in our experience it would be overstating the case to say that women per se influence compliant behaviour.

In fact we should be looking at it from the other point of view and saying that perhaps the companies with women well represented at board level are likely to be better run in the first place. By having women at that level, companies show that they are capable of spotting and harnessing talent wherever it may come from – and equally importantly, that they value diversity.

We tend to only hear of successful women in business when the media pick up on it, a case of exception reporting. In society there are still dinosaurs who feel that a woman’s place is at home rather than in the boardroom. Rather than focus on their success in isolation they are viewed as people who have broken the mould. If talent is the only passport to success then we need to do more to let it succeed regardless of what form it comes in.

Even though there have been improvements, the Cranfield research highlights the fact that the glass ceiling for women is still very much with us. Although figures in the public domain state that between 1974 and 1998, the number of female company directors increased by 600%, the fact remains that even now fewer than four in one hundred directors are women. Only one in five City fund managers are women – and there is only one female chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, Dame Marjorie Scardino of Pearson.

Overall, of the UK’s top 350 companies, only 3% of their executive directors and 8% of the non-executive directors are female. Additionally, women make up just 9% of top business leaders, 9% of national newspaper editors, 7% of the senior judiciary and of senior police officers, and just 1% of senior army officials.

And it’s not just about a glass ceiling. The new and equally detrimental phenomenon of the ‘glass cliff’ has been mentioned in the media over recent months, not least in relation to Kate Swann’s appointment to the leading position at WHSmith’s. The glass cliff refers to the supposed trend for women being pushed into high-powered roles in the public eye just as a crisis approaches. Whatever our conclusions, there is no denying that industry-leading women are still few and far between – and perhaps it is time to seriously consider the reasons for that, and why this is still an issue in the 21st Century.

One of the most significant disservices done to women is the idea that we have not just the right but the duty to do everything. Ninety-nine per cent of women don’t have time to be a super-mum and hold down a high-powered career at the same time; very few women will realistically be able to work a 12 hour day as well as looking after their children. This is perhaps one of the biggest issues facing organisations today. We must learn to recognise the fact that many women will decide to have children, and that this may disrupt a ‘standard’ career path but does not have to be a blocker to success.

The apparent inflexibility of the corporate world to accept different ways of being successful is another huge challenge that needs to be considered. Whilst women may be pushing at the corporate glass ceiling they are also certainly not lying down when they find it impenetrable. Recent research from the London Business School shows that in Britain for every 100 hundred male entrepreneurs, 46 women set up their own firm in 2004.

This was approximately 177,000 women last year, closing a gap that had been significant for decades. This could be seen as a reaction to events in the corporate world. Setting up a business is hard work, but it does give you the flexibility to start practices and policies that accept different working styles, aspirations and ways of being successful. Those start-ups that go on to become the success stories of the next few years could be the clink of light that women have been looking for – organisations focused on letting talent succeed whatever their background or needs are.

It is only when you start with that as an understanding that you will have a chance of creating a truly equal situation. And this goes beyond looking at “job share” and maternity leave options. Employers need to take a mature look at the problems and seriously address flexible working practices and the challenges that women face in the workplace. Once it’s understood as an implicit part of many women’s lives, we can look at arranging sensible working practices, and get the most out of what can otherwise be an undeniably difficult position.

One Response

  1. Equality – an issue promoted for women but ignored for men?
    It’s interesting that the authors Louise and Jill extol the virtue of equality but only refer to women who want to have a family and a career, ignoring the fact that men might have the same aspirations, and go on to talk about the legislation applying to women whilst ignoring the fact it also gives rights to men.

    As a father who works part time to balance home and work responsibilities I am all too aware of the glass ceiling – men who exercise their rights to a family life not only suffer from the same experience we are ignored by so called campaigners for “equality” who never seem to manage to include men in their version of equality. I know that the glass ceiling issue affects far more women than men but, in part, this is because few men dare to aspire to any work life balance because equality is promoted as being for women rather than as for both genders.

    I work in the public sector (men find it hard to find part time work anywhere else) and in the organisation that I work for targets are set every year to close the gender pay differences,(as on average our female staff earn less than our male staff) and to increase the percentage of women managers but although men are under represented in virtually every aspect of our organisation (only one in four of our staff are male) no action is being taken to redress the gender balance and equality issues for men are simply not acknowledged.

    It’s time that we learned to be inclusive when we promote equality – because promoting “equality” for one section of the community will inevitably lead to new inequalities for those who are left out.

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