In the limelight: October 2019

October 1, 2019

Richard Dawson looks at the importance of organisational culture for gender diversity and finds that perhaps the single most powerful thing women in leadership can do is be themselves

One of the biggest challenges we face in bringing about a more gender diverse and inclusive workplace is one that normally goes under the radar in these conversations – organisational culture.

Often, it’s the headline figures that are quoted to check what progress we’ve made in the UK. We see that the number of women on boards of FTSE100 companies has risen from 12.5 per cent in 2011 to 32 per cent today. There are also signs that the gender pay gap is closing, at least in relative terms.

In fairness, things are improving – but it’s slow progress. The fact remains that only seven CEOs on the FTSE100 are women, and more than three-quarters of UK companies pay men on average more than women.

Speaking to three women in leadership roles in the North East, it seems that many of the biggest barriers to getting more women into top jobs and levelling the playing field on pay are cultural.

Firstly, our collective understanding of what leadership is and of what it takes to be successful is still very much coloured by predetermined gender roles and stereotypes. This generalised idea that men are strong, assertive, even ruthless and women are polite, accommodating and nurturing.

It’s accepted that masculine traits are what’s needed to excel, that “you need to be mean to get ahead”, says Sarah Glendinning, regional director of CBI North East.

Sara Bryson, community organiser for Citizens UK, identifies the problem with this attitude.

“A lot of women in senior positions feel they have to behave ‘very male’ to succeed,” she says.

On balance, Emily Cox, group head of colleague relations at Lloyds Banking Group believes the single most powerful thing women in leadership can do is “be themselves”.

She speaks about one of her role models who was hugely successful and internationally regarded but also cared for three boys and always made time for the small things that mattered to her.

“She was able to make her career and her family life work for her”, Emily says. Having that example of a leader who doesn’t sacrifice everything and everyone to get ahead has enabled Emily to follow suit. She’s in charge of developing Lloyds’ relationship with the trade unions but works mostly remotely so that she can look after her daughter.

Speaking about her female role models, Sarah struck much the same chord.

“I think what they showed me is how important it is to be kind – kind to yourself and kind to others. Sometimes kindness is an underrated trait of a good leader,” she says.

Equally important is culture in the workplace.

Emily explains: “Culture and tone from the top is the single thing that matters and if you don’t have that buy-in right at the top of any business, then it won’t succeed.”

Things like embracing flexible working and trusting people to complete their work where and when it suits them can have a transformative effect.

“The flexibility element is important because women still tend to be the primary care givers for children and older parents”, says Emily.

Of course, these kinds of things don’t just benefit women. They benefit the whole organisation. When you create a culture that is supportive of the multiple roles people have in life, women feel empowered to succeed but it empowers everyone.

Social media presents a whole new challenge in the struggle for better representation. Again, it’s a cultural problem and Sara, Emily and Sarah all mentioned how women in leadership are disproportionately on the receiving end of abuse online.

“I think of Steph McGovern on BBC Breakfast who has a regional accent,” said Sara, “and the amount of abuse she gets, why would you then talk openly about being Northern and female if you’re going to get that much abuse?”

Sarah adds: “For a lot of women, putting yourself out there is a huge thing to do. Just look at what’s happening to people like Jess Phillips. But you can counteract that with being kind and supporting each other, letting people know they’ve done a good job.

“I have a fantastic support network of men and women and I think that makes a tremendous difference.”

The case for a more diverse and inclusive workplace could not be clearer. When women are fairly represented, it leads to better decision making at all levels. For Sara, it’s about bringing together different ways of looking at the world to move things forward.

She concludes: “Unless you’ve got that diversity of lived experience, you’re not going to make better decisions about how we run things.”

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Monthly report - October 2019