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Behind every great man is a great woman

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And that’s the problem.

Cheryl Donnison  By Cheryl Donnison

It’s nothing new to say there’s still a distinct disparity between the number of men and women in executive positions, with men frequently favoured over women. But the world is slowly waking up to the true damage of inequality on businesses, economies and individuals.

Research shows that a lack of equality in executive hiring leads to opportunity risks, reduced profits – male-only boards are costing the UK, US and India $655bn a year – and more women turning away from senior careers in search of another way to the top. To solve this, corporate and government bodies are increasingly keen to accelerate diversity and ensure businesses are hiring based on talent, not on old habits.

But is that a good thing? 

Is there a danger that businesses and government quangos are just box ticking, playing to statistics and filling a quota of women, whether they’re good enough or not. The result is a nice looking ‘meet the team’ page but not a structure that delivers support and development. Hiring simply becomes a PR exercise.

76% of senior roles are taken by men 

Globally the level of women in senior roles has risen just 3% in the past five years, currently sitting at 24%. One third of businesses globally have no women in senior roles. While the number of women in middle management has grown quickly in the last three decades, there’s still a notable absence of women in senior roles. This isn’t just an issue for women, it’s an issue for commerce, as businesses experience a sizeable competitive disadvantage through a lack of gender balance.

Simply put, businesses that still look to males at senior roles are failing to tap into the entire talent pool, giving their competitors the opportunity to access a wider field of candidates and take the initiative.

Diversity is a moneymaker.

Research by management consultancy McKinsey tells us:

 ‘the profitability of companies with gender-balanced senior teams outperforms the industry average by over 34%’.

So we can see the wider benefits here, it’s not just about considering women equally for senior roles, it’s about understanding that gender-mixed teams work better. It’s not a case of making sure your latest company newsletter is full of women, it’s about hiring the best and understanding that ‘the best’ can be any sex. Or risk damaging your business.

Women are becoming disillusioned

Whilst it is very much about equality for all, there is a very real danger that if the difficulty for women to gain senior were to continue or even get worse, disillusionment and disengagement could become rife amongst women in corporate roles. Recent research by the UK Institute for employment studies noted:

“’The slow progress made by talented, educated, ambitious women is now having some negative effects on women’s views of management and the professions as a career. Fewer women are entering MBA programs, thus reducing the pipeline for career advancement.” 


“More women in mid-career are leaving their corporate jobs, opting for a career in small business or full-time investment in family.” 

Senior career vs. family life

It’s the conundrum of modern working life for women and there’s strong evidence to back up the fact that a desire to be with their children is contributing to the lack of women in senior roles. Senior roles for some women just aren’t wanted, with many wanting part-time when their children are of schooling age. And the fact that families are starting later means more and more women are facing this dilemma, with many choosing family.

Anne Marie Slaughter, former dean of Princeton gave a speech recently about why she decided to step down to spend more time with her children. She suggests women who want a senior career should look to start a family around 25, giving them the freedom to dedicate time to their career later in life.

‘Old habits are dying hard’

It’s clear, then, that the lack of women in senior roles is not an issue created entirely by complacency in government and the entrenched viewpoints of industry. Many women are choosing to not take senior roles, instead moving into small business or indeed stepping down from executive positions to focus on other priorities.

But a major problem does remain and persist – for men, credibility is often derived from their gender and their status in the company. For women, credibility more often comes from their individual skills, meaning women often have to work extra hard to be offered opportunities because of their gender.

It’s fair to say that old habits are dying hard and the problem for industry is, unless they rethink their approach to recruitment, profits are dying hard too, as are the ambitions of many talented businesswomen.

In my next blog we’ll move this along and look at how coaching is helping women move into senior positions, including tips of my own.

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