The Women and Work Commission has found that unleashing the full potential of women in the work place could be worth £23 billion to the Exchequer*. Research by McKinsey (re-released in Feb 2015) found that UK companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to have financial returns above the national industry median. And a 2015 report by Grant Thornton found that diverse boards consistently outperform male-only boards in the UK.
But with such strong evidence to support the need for more women in business, why is it that women still only make up 21 per cent of senior management roles in the UK, while male entrepreneurs outnumber females three to one?
Last month, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) launched a report, Time for Action: The Business Case for Inclusive Workplaces. In it, the CBI outlines the business case for embracing more inclusiveness and details a number of recommendations that companies and organisations should be adopting.
Sarah Glendinning, North East regional director of CBI, cites three of these recommendations as being particularly prevalent when encouraging more women into senior roles: the need, where possible, for more flexible working, the need to build confidence among workers, and the need for more appropriate mentoring, sponsorship and networking.
On flexible working, Sarah reflects: “A 9-to-5 work pattern doesn’t offer flexibility, and technology has now changed the way employees can fulfil their duties without being sat at their desks all day.
“For example, I may work two or three evenings a week but I know that I can pick my kids up from school at another time without having to request permission because I’m still delivering what I need to do in terms of my role.
“I see companies and organisations such as Northumbria University, Home Group, Deloitte and EY, which are already encouraging more flexibility among their staff to enable them to do their best work.
“Empowering your staff – men and women – so that they can manager their time and their responsibilities to get that work/life balance is really important,” she adds.
The regional director, who previously worked in recruitment, also talks about the importance of companies promoting flexible working in their job advertisements.
“When I was in recruitment, very few adverts mentioned flexible working. It tended to come up, but in conversations much later in the process.
“By mentioning flexible working from the outset, you can appeal to a wider pool of talent – including more women.”
Evidence also indicates a lack of confidence and ambition among women in the UK to reach for senior management positions.
A 2016 report by Hays, in which it surveyed more than 11,500 people globally, found that only 11 per cent of women in the UK believed they needed to reach the most senior levels (manager director or CEO) to feel successful in their careers. This compared to 28 per cent in Malaysia, 22 per cent in Colombia and 18 per cent in the UAE.
Solutions to help build confidence among women often centre around the need for more female role models in business.
Gillian Marshall, chief executive of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum agrees: “We do need higher profile business women, especially in this region.
“The North East has some wonderful examples of women who have achieved great things. Entrepreneurs such as Sara Davies [Crafter’s Companion], Alice Hall [Pink Boutique] and Jules Quinn [The TeaShed], as well as women in senior management roles, including Lucy Winskell [pro vice-chancellor, Northumbria University], Judith Doyle [principle and CEO, Gateshead College] and Heidi Mottram [CEO of Northumbrian Water]. But it is important to profile women in enterprise at all levels – from hobby businesses, to growing and scaled businesses.
“It’s also essential,” Gillian continues, “that the message filters down to the higher and further education levels, as well as to school level.”
Nickie Gott is the managing director of North East events company She’s Gott It! and chairs the Women’s Advisory Board of the North East England Chamber of Commerce (NEECC). She also organises the WIN North East Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, which this year take place at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Newcastle on November 11.
The awards may be in their 17th year, but Nickie still reports a lack of confidence among women in nominating themselves.
“Quite often, it will have been someone else who has put nominees forward,” she explains. “Women think if they apply themselves, they will be accused of being arrogant or big headed.”
Nickie also talks about the need to look at the way we take about women in business: “Sometimes, from a media perspective, there is a lot of fighting talk. Things like we’re part of a battle or that we need to smash glass ceilings could be interpreted quite negatively.
“I think language around encouraging women in business needs to be more about inspiration, motivation, role models and hand holding – which is what we try and do with the awards.”
Sarah, Gillian and Nickie all endorse the benefits of creating a supportive network among business women in the North East, but are hesitant when it comes to opportunities that are exclusive to women.
Gillian explains: “For me, I don’t think [women-only networking] works. To develop and grow your business, you need to be open to male and female networks and conversations.”
Nickie adds: “In my role for the NEECC, I work with the organisation in hosting a number of IW (Inspiring Women) events throughout the year but we never make them exclusive to women and always encourage men to attend, too.”
All three also reject positive discrimination and quotas for women in business.
“I don’t think anyone – male or female – wants to feel that they have been given a position that’s based on anything but merit,” says Sarah.
Instead, they maintain that the focus should be on the business case for promoting diversity in business.
“We’re very good at saying we must embrace gender diversity but often don’t say why,” says Nickie. “It makes a lot of business sense to be more diverse in what we do. The reality is that a more diverse workforce can make a big difference to your bottom line. Lots of different people with different skills, and different thinking, working together is more productive than having one single type of person.”
*According to the UK budget for tax year 2013