4 inspirational female leaders on how to smash the glass ceiling

14 April 2016 -


Hear from inspirational female business leaders on how women can break through the glass ceiling and become a fixture in the C-Suite’s of the UK’s biggest companies

Jermaine Haughton

The number of women in senior positions at British companies has gone into reverse over the past year, with more than a third of businesses having no female managers at all.

In the retail industry the number of female chief executives appointed at UK retailers fell by 40% last year and less than one in six of all retail chief executives appointed last year were women, compared with one in four in 2014, according to the annual Retail CEO Tracker by recruitment firm Korn Ferry.

So with more still to do in terms of empowering women in the workplace, the Closing the Gender Gap: How to Retain Senior Women in Business from Best Companies - the masterminds behind The Sunday Times’ Best Companies to Work For List - offers advice from four successful women who have reached the top of their respective fields.

Kate Gaskin, director and founder of Right Angle Events, Hayley Smith, founder of Boxed Out PR, Angelica Malin, Editor-in-Chief of About Time Magazine and Penny de Valk, managing director of Penna Talent Practice share their views about what should be the focus of managers and executives in helping retain senior businesswomen.


Research shows that some women find it hard to see themselves as leaders. KPMG conducted a women’s leadership study that found confidence remains an important, though elusive, characteristic for many women seeking advancement in the workplace, as 63% cited confidence as a top characteristic of leaders, but six in 10 women felt they do not have what it takes to be a leader.

In a separate study, Julie Coffman and Bill Neuenfeldt found in their research for Bain & Company that young women enter the workplace full of confidence but over time that confidence declines sharply.

Upon starting their careers, 43% of female employees aspire to top management roles but after just two years on the job, “women’s aspiration levels drop by more than 60%...with only 16% of women” still thinking they can reach executive roles.

Women are also often less confident than men when putting themselves forward for jobs. A Hewlett-Packard internal report in 2014 found that men will apply for a job when they are 60% qualified, as opposed to women who believed they must be 100% qualified to put themselves forward for a new role.

Gaskin believes that a lack of confidence can have a huge impact on the direction of a woman’s career: “Overall I think self-belief is a tough one for some women. Women are less self-promoting, less likely to ask for a pay rise and more self-deprecating in applications.

“Companies being aware of that can get women to see that they can be as good as another individual who is more self-promoting. I don’t believe we should have quotas, positive discrimination or female-only sections, but we can encourage application, look for rising stars and dangle things in front of them.”

Hire from within for senior roles

When looking for people to fill positions in senior management, many companies will automatically look for candidates externally. Organisational hierarchy, plus this external search, can be damaging for retention across the board.

Career mapping and plans for progression have been clearly identified as a key factor for improving engagement and retention, and this is something that Smith feels is incredibly important: “Businesses often have good intentions to diversify their companies, and create higher positions for women, however there doesn’t always seem to be enough policy in place to make it happen.

“Career mapping from an employer can add value and loyalty, and create equal opportunities. This then removes the chances that women will not be aware of opportunities that are suited to them.”

Prioritise mentoring

Having someone to look up to can be incredibly advantageous, but the benefits of having a mentor in your career are seriously under-publicised to people at all levels.

For women in particular, the notorious lack of other women in senior leadership roles doesn’t serve as much inspiration.

In the research paper, Network Intervention: A Field Experiment to Assess the Effects of Formal Mentoring on Workplace Networks, assistant professor Sameer Srivastava of UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business found that workplace mentors benefit female employees more than men.

And female employees stand much to gain from formal, face-to-face mentoring programs. The paper reports that women gained more social capital from affiliation with a high-status mentor than their male counterparts.

Some corporations are already taking notice.

IBM currently pairs top leaders (often male) with female mentees who have been identified as future leaders. Intended to increase visibility of up-and-coming female leaders to top executives, as well as exposing female leaders to the most strategic work at the company, the mentor/mentee meet regularly, each learning from the other.

Malin feels that if more women are seen in roles such as these, then others will be motivated to follow: “One of the best things that companies could do is to actually get senior women from within their own companies to talk, because often you go to speeches or presentations and it’s very male-focused.

“Often when you go to career days hosted by big brands or big companies trying to recruit people, there’s still a lot of guys present.

“So I think one of the best things a company could do is get senior-level women who are already within the company to go and meet people. I think that would show the company itself to be quite favourable towards women, and for me it would encourage me to work there.”

Hear from more inspiring women at the 2016 Inspiring Women Conference in Birmingham

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