Why aren’t more businesses led by women?

Why aren’t more businesses led by women?

When you consider that the UK has the highest proportion of female bosses in Europe, you might think that the future for British businesswomen seems b

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When you consider that the UK has the highest proportion of female bosses in Europe, you might think that the future for British businesswomen seems bright. However, another shocking statistic shows that there’s still a long way to go before men and women are on a level playing field — CEOs in the UK are more likely to be named Stephen than they are to be female. The 2019 report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development also revealed there were just six women leading FTSE 100 companies, and that they were paid 32% less than the men in the study.


Clearly this isn’t good enough, and more businesses need to take steps to tackle this disappointing imbalance and reduce the gender pay gap. For example, they could introduce flexible working options to make it easier for women to continue working while raising a family. Enterprises with women already in senior positions could introduce a third-party executive development programme, such as those offered by world-renowned leadership advisory firms like Egon Zehnder, which seeks to “enable today’s executives to transform into tomorrow’s world-changing leaders”. Initiatives like these optimise candidates’ skills, preparing them for financial, strategic and communication challenges, and generally encourages women to reach the top.


However, before doing anything, British companies must understand why their leadership positions are not being filled by women.

Everyday workplace sexism

Recent research by tech recruiter CWJobs revealed the appalling prevalence of workplace sexism in the UK, with nearly one in four women reporting promotion-related discrimination based on their gender. Furthermore, over half of female tech employees have been told that being a woman could inhibit their career, and 63% have overheard or been asked “Can I speak with your boss?”.


This discrimination isn’t exclusive to the tech industry either. According to Young Women’s Trust, 27% of working women believe it’s harder to progress in their careers, compared to just 11% of men. “From patronising remarks to sexual harassment and gender discrimination, sexist cultures only serve to hold women back,” said communication and campaigns director Joe Levenson. “This perpetuates gender pay gaps and disadvantages employers by limiting their organisations’ talent pools.”


As well as being far more likely to be undermined, challenged and humiliated at work, gender discrepancies can be debilitating when it comes to building vital working relationships, thus discouraging many women from seeking senior positions. Mentorship is key in helping employees develop the skills they need to progress. However, a 2017 study unveiled a gender-based “mentoring gap” where women were less likely to be mentored and have fewer people directly offering them career advice. Life in the #MeToo era also means it may be more difficult for women to seek guidance from male mentors. Approximately 60% of male managers are uncomfortable mentoring women, as well as socialising or working alone with them, up from 46% in 2018.


These attitudes can make women feel self-conscious at work, and the pressure of trying to “fit in” can often be too much. As explained in this Forbes article with insights from executive coach and organizational consultant Ipek Serifsoy, “[Women start] to watch themselves and second-guess what they are doing, making it less and less possible to respond in authentic and spontaneous ways.” Serifsoy goes on to note that the drive to rise through the ranks begins to dissipate as women realise how much more work it takes to make it: “Caution leads to inhibition. […] The rewards did not outweigh the strain. Therefore, they stepped off the career ladder — even though they were poised for success.”

Family commitments

Both male and female employees can become parents during their careers, yet women are disproportionately prevented from progressing as a result. A report published by the universities of Bristol and Essex for the Government Equalities Office found that, compared to new fathers, women were two-thirds less likely to be promoted within five years of having a child. Just under 28% of mothers were in full-time jobs, or self-employed, three years after giving birth, compared to 90% of men. Furthermore, though only 4% of men left employment five years after having a baby, this was the case for 17% of women. “Women who return to the same employer risk becoming stuck in their job roles with limited career progression,” said University of Bristol Professor Susan Harkness, while Dr Alina Pelikh warned that these patterns are “unlikely to be reversed as children grow older”.


Unfortunately, many women can’t afford to hire professional carers. One survey, conducted by Pregnant Then Screwed, revealed that a fifth of parents stop working due to the prohibitive cost of childcare, while 62% will work fewer hours for the same reason. However, reducing working hours isn’t always possible, as demonstrated by former Facebook data scientist Eliza Khuner. She was forced to resign after the tech giant refused to let her work from home on a part-time basis after the birth of her third child. Unless employers are supportive, and offer women the flexibility they need to care and work simultaneously, it’s incredibly difficult for them to continue in employment, let alone receive promotions and become business leaders. In fact, one in five employers freely admits that pregnancy impacts promotion decisions.


Beyond childcare, it also often falls to women to look after elderly relatives — one study found that half of women will be carers for old, sick or disabled relatives by the age of 46. The same will be true of men by the age of 57, which gives them over a decade more to continue working as normal. As noted by Age UK: “Many women carers keep working and somehow juggle their home and care commitments, but others give up their job, finding it too much to keep all these balls in the air.”

Anxiety over gender quotas

In a bid to increase diversity, many businesses have introduced gender quotas, though these measures may sometimes deter women from going after senior positions. Philippa Foster Back, Director at the Institute of Business Ethics, told business advisers at Grant Thornton that gender quotas can be problematic as, “From an individual perspective, these practices might lead to assumptions that individuals are benefitting from favourable treatment based on their characteristics instead of their merits.”


It’s certainly possible that, when quotas are involved, a woman could be stigmatised as less qualified than their male co-workers, subsequently hindering their ability to effectively contribute. This could be very stressful, forcing them to work harder to prove their appointment was justified. Interestingly, the aforementioned Forbes article, also reveals that many women who attended Serifsoy’s women’s leadership cohorts didn’t tell their colleagues that the event was aimed at women. They were keen to avoid accusations of extra or special treatment due to their gender.


That said, this doesn’t necessarily mean gender quotas can’t still help women get ahead. Some may be put off by the thought of ticking a box so to speak, but the situation in France shows quotas do work, with 44% of company board seats now held by women. This comes off the back of the 2011 Copé-Zimmermann law, which requires companies to achieve at least 40% by 2020. It is expected that France will introduce further quotas to stimulate equality across the board, as there are currently only 18% women at management level.


Here in the UK, the Fawcett Society has demanded the introduction of quotas “to speed up change and overcome persistent barriers to progress”. However, Liz Truss, Minister for Women and Equalities, believes: “When you say ‘we’re going to value you because you’re a woman rather than the innate talent and skills you bring’, it’s potentially dangerous because it implies you’re there as a token rather than a contributor”. With that in mind, this outcome seems somewhat unlikely.