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Marion Stewart

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What’s holding back women in business?

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Marion Stewart considers the challenges women have faced and continue to face in business and whether quotas will help create more diversity in sectors such as her own – IT.

The government review – challenging the status quo
The subject of getting more women in executive positions in British businesses following Lord Davies’ report, Women on boards in February stipulating that the government wants FTSE 100 company boards to have at least 25% female representation by 2015. Whilst this is hardly a particularly challenging target on the face of it, the fact of the matter is that today women make up just 12.5% of corporate boards in FTSE 100 companies: an increase from a mere 9.4% in 2004.

As a woman who has been fortunate enough to enjoy a successful career in the IT industry for the past 20 years – a market that is predominantly male – and doing a technology role – also a male bastion, I would like to share my thoughts on what I believe is holding women back from reaching the board, not just in large FTSE 100 companies but across the spectrum of British companies. 

What will and won’t work – are quotas a good idea?
Let’s first examine the idea of quotas proposed in the government’s review. This is not likely to have the desired impact as I believe it will result in ‘tokenism’ whereby some women will be promoted to roles simply to tick the box rather than by merit.  I would always favour a meritocracy.  I’m not convinced of any genetic reason why there are so few women operating at board level in the UK therefore can only conclude that it must be environmental!

What is needed is a much more fundamental change, both from an educational and cultural perspective. I would be much more in favour of a government directive that rewarded companies that successfully developed these egalitarian cultures. One thing that would help enormously in the IT sector would be to create and celebrate more female role models and engage in forums specifically for women to share their experiences and help each other by creating a support network they can learn from.

My career in IT

My own career started out studying Electronic Engineering at Falkirk College of Technology. That experience was typical of many women in the technology sector, in that I was the sole female on the course. This of course had its advantages and disadvantages, but it prepared me well for my future career in IT where women are most definitely in the minority. After completing the course, and working in various local government roles, I moved to work for Strathclyde Police IT Department, another very macho environment, but a great learning experience nonetheless. During this time I also completed a Degree in Business Studies at Stirling University. My professional career in IT has also spanned working for large multinational organisations such as Intel, Wang and Savvis and more recently a cloud computing service organisation, Star.  

Learning to blow your own trumpet

It was in one of my earlier roles at Wang, a US headquartered organisation, where I still remember receiving one of the most helpful training programs that has stayed with me throughout my career. It dealt with the importance of establishing your brand, self-promotion and how to assert yourself in business – skills that do not come naturally to many people but which are important if you are to ensure that you are in the forefront of management’s mind when promotions or senior roles are available. This knowledge has served me well during my own career and I have also introduced a similar training session for my team here at Star, as well as establishing a structured mentoring process for my team. 

Practical issues of flexible working

Retaining female talent in the workforce is of vital importance and making the appropriate provisions for those with the added responsibility of raising a family is critical.  Employers that provide remote working facilities that include communication and collaboration tools, such as video conferencing, will help make remote employees more practical.  Another important aspect is of course the availability of affordable child care, as unless professional and affordable child care is available it will become financially prohibitive for promising young women to return to work. 

A balanced executive team
All things considered I believe that having a mixture of males and females on the board offers the optimum mix of skills and perspective to create a well balanced management structure. It is well acknowledged in many psychological studies that male and females brains operate in different ways and that their approach to tackling problems and challenges is also vastly different; in having this diversity I believe that companies will see a direct benefit to their bottom line. I’d like to see more successful women from the technology field helping the next generation of women to step into their shoes, and also for the UK to look to other countries like the US to see what we can learn from the way they have successfully increased the proportion of women on their executive boards.
 

Marion Stewart, Customer Solutions Director, Star

2 Responses

  1. Women on Boards

     I agree this is a good post Marion, and something dear to my heart.  I have worked as a consultant/coach in a range of organizations nationally and internationally and find that there is still much work to be done to promote and develop organizational awareness about equality in the board room.  

    Our desire as women to succeed means that we may also try harder and harder to be experienced a effective and this in itself can be a problem.  The outcome of this Try Harder style can mean that women can take on jobs that are actually too demanding for one person but wanting to prove themselves they do it anyway, with the possible outcome of stress and burnout.  I wrote a paper about this entitled "From Glass Slippers to Glass Cliffs", (in Growth & Change for Oragnizations: Transactional Analysis New developments 1995-2006, eds. Mohr G/ Steinert T, published by ITAA).  A copy of this paper can be found in the downloads section of our website: http://www.orgtatraining.co.uk/glass_pv.html/  or http://www.mountain-associates.co.uk and click on "downloads".

    Women also need to be supported to develop new positive self-talk that goes against any negative messages we received from our families, immediate culture and the wider culture.  We are not always conscious of some of these messages and therefore developing awareness is necessary – and of course men too need to develop their awareness as we are all losers when anyone, or any group or race are perceived as less than others.

    It’s interesting that when working in St. Petersbury in Russia we noticed that many women are engineers, technicians, etc. the rationale for which is historical.  This makes for a very different society and  despite their minority in the population men are still very often the ones in leadership positions.  

    Mmm…I could go on.  It’s a topic dear to my hear.

    All the best, Anita

  2. Women on Boards

    Great post Marion.

    I have sat on some 16 different UK boards as a Non-Exec Director or Chairman over the last 12+ years, as well as a number of other companies’ boards as an Exec Director.  Some of these have had a healthy gender-mix  – mainly in private-sector engineering, software and business services – but sadly not all. 

    To become a Director, in almost all cases one needs to have had a successful senior *management* career first to qualify – male or female – and that seems to me to be the fundamental stumbling block to address.

    In truth, I see many organisations becoming much less gender-biased in their management selection, but of course it takes a while for younger folk to come through.  One thing I therefore take a particular interest in as a Non-Exec is who is selected and how for senior management development, coaching and mentoring – male and female; which I think is one of several critical steps here.

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