Leading Ladies

world-in-your-handsAs I experience life, I have a long list of blog subjects that I add to. Gender equality in business has been on that list for a long time but it is a subject that no matter how positive and supportive of the cause you are, it can somehow sound condescending when a man writes about the subject. As always when I write, I write from my personal experiences and opinions.

Recently I watched the film “Becoming Warren Buffet” and I loved that this power house of the modern business world welcomed the rise of ladies in business and industry. Warren made a comment that stuck with me, saying “We’ve seen what can be accomplished with 50% of our human capacity. If you visualise what 100% can do, you’ll join me with unbridled optimism about our future”. That really hit a chord and I was thrilled that it backed up my thinking and attitude over the past fourteen years. I say 14 years because for half of my professional career I was basically ignorant about the subject.

I started full time work and my career back in 1987, so in 3 months’ time I will have been working for 30 years! As you can imagine things have changed a bit. There was no internet, no email and very few computers. MTV was evolving but it had only been launched a few years earlier and only 3 years prior they’d allowed the first airing of videos by Michael Jackson and Prince, previously banned because of the colour of their skin! It was a very different time indeed.

Even though I’d grown up with women in the most powerful positions in the UK, Queen Elizabeth as our Monarch, Margaret Thatcher as our Prime Minister, a headmistress at my school and an amazing Mum who taught me so much about respect and values, for the first 15 years of my professional career I can’t actually remember any women in senior leadership positions in the companies I worked for.

Back in those late 80’s, everything was written on typewriters and typed by ‘secretaries’. I worked for a small company of about 15 people and the only women in the business were secretaries. There were no women working in the consultancy side of the business and although I was just a snotty nosed 17 year old I can’t remember even a conversation about why that was, or if we should do anything about it. It just was what it was!

When I moved jobs in the early 90’s, I worked for a company of about 150 people. It was another construction consultancy and from memory there were only 4 ladies in consultancy positions. That’s just over 2%. In the whole business! Again I can never remember any discussions around gender equality, it just never got talked about. I do remember being an assistant quantity surveyor on site in East London and my direct boss was a young lady. She was a senior quantity surveyor, who was bloody good at her technical job, but as a boss, jeez she was tough. She was aggressive, rude and demanding, to be honest I really didn’t like her and it made that project a tough one to enjoy. Looking back, I just thought she had a chip on her shoulder and my opinion was that she was acting out like she thought a man would do in the role, but totally overdoing it. I’d never met many empathetic bosses, most would be very dominant and direct and this young lady was that, plus. Obviously I’ve become a bit worldlier now and when I think back to that time, I cannot even start to imagine how tough it must have been for this young lady in such a male dominated industry. Through being great at her technical job she had received promotion that obviously meant she would have to manage people, and when the company has only 2% women in it, she was going to be managing a lot of young, cocky, ignorant blokes!! It would have been such a tough gig, especially with little or no training in leadership.

I’ve always worked in the construction and property industry and my career progressed nicely, but in the fields I worked in of Quantity Surveyor and Project Management, the opportunity to meet female leaders was minimal whilst in the UK. If there were strong female ladies I unfortunately was not in a position to get to meet or work with them. It wasn’t until I came to Australia in the early 2000’s that I started to experience ladies in leadership positions and even then, they were few and far between.

Obviously in the past ten years or so there has quite rightly been a major push for gender equality in business. In my last few roles I have had the pleasure and privilege to work for some amazing female leaders, ladies who were at board level and some that were inspiring leaders of thousands of people. I’ve also had the privilege of working with, mentoring and leading some amazing ladies. In the past fourteen years the conversation has definitely moved quite dramatically to a shift and positive attitude to give more opportunities for ladies in business. To be honest though, talk only goes so far and a lot of talk is false promise. We still have a very long way to go.

While I’m not a fan of using stats in my blogs, I think in this instance they serve a valuable purpose so let’s look at a few.

According to 20-first, a gender consultancy firm, women hold 17% of senior management roles in America’s 100 largest companies. Astonishingly the equivalent figures for Europe and Asia are just 11% and 4%.

Interestingly according to an American Association of University Women (AAUW) study, the gender gap exists because there is a pipeline problem; sex discrimination continues to be a barrier, as are stereotypes and sexual harassment; family and caregiving responsibilities are more likely to affect women’s careers than men’s; research suggests that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to networks, mentorship, and sponsorship; and a variety of stereotypes and biases have detrimental effects. There is also an issue with women not focusing and being attracted to university courses that would allow them to enter a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) career path. All of this also affects a gap in equal pay between men and women in the same role.

On a positive note a study by Barclays on unlocking the female economy found that the gender pay gap was reversed for wealthy entrepreneurs and business owners, with men trailing behind their female counterparts. They state that “This suggests that women will tend to achieve greater financial success in an environment that is purely market-driven, rather than a more traditional job in which pay must be negotiated”.

A final study by Illuminate Ventures also reveals that high-tech companies built by women use capital more efficiently than the norm. It states that “More than ever before, women are influencing the face of business. They are on the cusp of becoming a leading entrepreneurial force in technology.”

I find these last two pieces of research fascinating and encouraging.

Previously I’ve written about the “Peter Principal”, a theory which states that men get promoted to their level of incompetence. I say men because way back in 1969 when Laurence J. Peter wrote the theory it was predominantly men who got promoted. Some near 50 years later we still have a long way to go though, especially in terms of equal pay having witnessed this first hand myself and in women achieving more senior leadership roles in business.

We also have a long way to go in encouraging women to have the confidence to step up when we know they have the talent and ability. Recently I read another fascinating article called the Paula Principle by Tom Schuller. Its theory is about how and why women work one or two positions below their level of competence! Now I don’t necessarily agree with it fully but I do believe that a lot of women have a self-perspective of themselves that is below that of men’s. I think its subconscious and probably there from years of negative messaging from society which has configured the brains wiring. In my view everyone in the world doubts themselves at some stage, and I mean everyone one, but I believe blokes cover it up a lot better. If a bloke is given ten items to rate themselves against and they only have experience in three, they’ll back themselves for another four and convince themselves they can blag the final three. For a woman, if they can do six really well out of the ten and two of the other tasks OK, they will still doubt themselves to being able to do the job. Maybe its years of negativity from society, maybe it’s just honesty, but it’s not theory. I’ve interviewed 100’s of men and women and it’s easy to see and understand the pattern. So without wanting to sound condescending, because that’s the last thing I want, I encourage women to truly back themselves and take the punt on your ability. As Richard Branson famously said “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” Risky but fun.

For the first time in my career I work in a business that has an almost 50/50 gender split, my own team is 60% ladies, and 60% of my mentees are female. My latest Make One’s Mark Buzzword Talk was by the amazing Jessica Smith on positive body image who was just inspiring, and my MoM Business Manager, Ness Phillips is amazing and enhances everything we try to achieve.

So what is the answer to a very tough question? I don’t profess to have a magic formula but I believe in a world where everyone says it moves faster than ever, some things, like this, move very slowly, so we have to keep talking about the issues and raise awareness. More importantly we need to action the talk, make businesses actually follow through on their promise and open doors of opportunity so women can flourish in showing their ability. Education in schools is critical so that kids embrace and celebrate our diversity and not taught gender bias. Strong mentoring is another part of the solution, a mentor can help shape us and guide us through great career opportunities and open doors. We also need embrace an age where technology allows us to work anywhere anytime. Technology that enables us to fit-in important needs outside of work as well as work tasks into a day. Why not start with small actions on simple things that will in time create waves for bigger ideas to affect real change. Like the Broken Windows Theory (Add link here) used to help solve the New York crime wave of the 80’s and 90’s. Where the police focused on stopping petty crimes which in turn affected and changed the cities attitude and tolerance to crime, which then assisted the police to tackle bigger crime issues and causes. Sounds a little crazy but it could just work. Actions as simple as encouraging people to work hours that suit them as well as the business, introducing flexibility as part of a wider company culture. So many of us work in a deadline based society, why should we continue to use out of date rules when they just restrict actions and attitudes. We are living in a time of unprecedented shifts in working practices so let’s think about how new ways of working can benefit all and assist gender equality, so we can all tackle the opportunities we want to pursue. We all need to be more open minded, think differently and embrace change, openly encourage gender equality and not just talk about it.

Even though there is a long way to go, I’m hoping the tide continues to shift, that women get the opportunity to compete with men for all roles and be treated as equals so that the best people get the opportunities they deserve. I’ll be doing my bit in this to ensure that we live in very exciting times, and as Warren Buffet implies, imagine what the world is going to look like once we have invited 100% of the brains trust to come to the party! The sky will be the limit!!


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