Of myths and men: management's faltering role in inspiring women

24 February 2015 -


Female representation in the workplace should not be considered a specialist pursuit, argues a leading HR expert

Melanie Richards, partner, KPMG

A group of big-business chief executives were recently asked what they see as the hurdles preventing women from reaching senior management roles. The chief executives, who were – unsurprisingly – predominantly men, gave an array of interesting opinions. What came through loud and clear was the mea culpa. “It’s our failure as leaders” echoed throughout the majority of responses. In a sea change from the past, each was brave enough to admit that they had not done enough. 

In particular, the research identified that the way in which chief executives communicate about diversity is one of the challenges preventing progress from being made. With this in mind, perhaps one of the most effective changes we can make is to talk differently about the subject. Generally, managers understand the commercial reasons for having a diverse boardroom – studies have shown repeatedly that a diverse board can be less risky and more innovative – and they can articulate the theory. But that’s not enough. What really makes a difference is leaders speaking from the heart and truly inspiring women.

Echoing this call for more open and honest conversations around diversity, the 30% Club and KPMG released the findings of this research in a report called “Cracking the Code”, which sought to debunk 10 myths around how women progress to the top.

The survey, which encompasses a representative cross-section of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies, accounting for more than 680,000 employees, highlighted that men and women have similar career aspirations, leadership behaviours and push-and-pull factors for career moves. However, the study also revealed that even small differences can result in different outcomes. Currently, a man starting his career in a FTSE 100 organisation is four-and-a-half times more likely to make it to the executive committee than his female counterpart.

Undertaken in partnership with YSC, the business psychology consultancy, it also found that female executives in the UK’s top companies are half as likely to be promoted than men. Yet, at the same time, women at the top are four times less likely than men to leave a company – despite the lack of opportunities for promotion.

Deciphering the data

It’s alarming to note that the chief executives reported that only a minority of women at senior level – 7% of executive committee positions – have responsibility for a profit-generating area of the business. The majority of senior women are responsible for functions such as HR and legal, while the commercial reins are still held by men. It’s a situation that should never have been allowed to happen. But, at least, it is a scenario that people recognise as one that needs to be addressed.

Cynics may argue that this is nothing more than gender sabre-rattling, but, if that were true, why would groups such as Cityfathers also be fighting for male rights for a better work-life balance? The fact is that men and women want – and need – to be treated equally, both in a professional and personal setting. That is why the key to progress is for organisations to adopt a more gender-intelligent approach to improving diversity in the workplace. That’s no easy task, but there are at least three approaches that can help drive change.

The report argues that organisations need to unlock the power of data. Data is a valuable weapon, especially when it links both people and business performance. Yet companies are not doing enough to track individuals through their working life. Firms need to collect and provide more data to help build a clearer picture of employees’ careers. That way they can better manage their talent pipeline, keeping key staff engaged and ensuring they don’t lose them to the competition.

High-quality leadership must also play a part. Employees of both genders want more career-focused conversations, with clear mapping that leaders understand and support. It is often the quality of the conversation rather than the quantity that is important. All those in positions of leadership, including line managers, have a role to play, and should be given the tools and support that enable them to talk authentically and be “gender intelligent”. Anything less and attempts to right the gender imbalance will be derided as insincere.

Tackling the truth

The board must also take responsibility, for gender parity. It’s no good leaving everything to a “gender champion” as – just with any other aspect of business – all leaders should be held accountable for their actions. This includes the board and executive committee being measured against set targets and leading by example.

Tackling the lack of women in senior roles is a priority for many businesses. Progress has been made at FTSE 100 board level since February 2011, when Lord Davies raised the prospect of quotas of women on boards. However, businesses continue to struggle with the development of a sustainable pipeline and the promotion of women into executive roles. City businesses understand the social-justice imperative of diversity and inclusion, as well as the financial reasoning, but what they struggle with is the ability to articulate reasons for driving change.

The truth is a simple one. To deliver change, organisations must be more honest about the strategic importance of gender diversity. Leaders must show an interest in getting women to the top. Outsourcing responsibility to HR enablers or diversity and inclusion champions is a cop-out.

Men, just as much as women, need to feel comfortable advocating for change – for their daughters in the future, if not for their wives today. Workplace culture is changing, but to keep that momentum going it is vital that we all take responsibility, share information and are transparent. That way we can learn how to do things better in the future.

The higher up you go, the fewer women there are

The internal pipeline of executive female talent feeding into board positions is not strong. The 30% Club’s aim of boards having at least 30% female representation by the end of 2015 relies on appointing more female non-executive directors.

Executive committee (exco): 82% male representation - 18% female representation

One level below exco: 77% male representation - 23% female representation

Two levels below exco: 72% male representation - 28% female representation

Three levels below exco: 71% male representation - 29% female representation

Four or more levels below exco: 59% male representation - 41% female representation

FEMALE FOCUS: women become more ambitious than men as they climb the ladder 

Not at all ambitious = 0%; Extremely ambitious = 100%

Apprentice/trainee: Women 72% - Men 83%

Supervisor: Women 67% - Men 61%

Manager: Women 64% - Men 61%

Senior manager: Women 69% - Men 65%

BOYS’ CLUBS: two-thirds of participants on high-performance programmes are men

66% male - 34% female

Melanie Richards is a KPMG partner and UK board member, and a member of the 30% Club Steering Committee

Image courtesy of Jef Thompson / Shutterstock.

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