Getting women into senior roles

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Written by Sarah Pumffrey

Having women in senior roles is good for business – yet most companies still have more men at the top. Here’s how to redress the balance.

A study by Cranfield School of Management found that the number of women in senior jobs in the boardrooms of the UK’s biggest 100 companies has barely changed in the past 10 years. Meanwhile KPMG asked IT leaders about the importance of inclusion and diversity within their workforce in a survey and found that 29% believe it matters to a great extent, 47% to some extent, and nearly a quarter (24%) to little or no extent.

“Our findings were disappointing,” says Lisa Heneghan, global head of technology at KPMG. “We need to change perceptions and remove the barrier where executives fail to see diversity as an issue that has a direct impact on business performance.”

There is plenty of evidence that diverse teams do indeed mean better performance. The Harvard Business Review, for instance, found that when at least 30% of an organisation’s executives are female, this leads to 15% gains in profitability, and can be an advantage to recruiting and retention.

Tara Howard, founder of the Venus awards, which recognise a women’s achievements in business, says it’s vital to open up the conversation around gender equality so companies can better understand how to support women in reaching senior roles.

“We carried out a survey that showed 42% of women feel they’ve been disadvantaged in the workplace due to their gender – and that simply shouldn’t be the case,” she says.

Here are five practical steps you can take to redress the balance.


1. Provide mentoring opportunities

Tuition provider Explore Learning has progressed from an all-male board in 2014 to a 50% female board in 2018. Operations director Lisa Haycox says a key contributing factor is the company’s mentoring scheme.

“Mentorship from our senior women to our top emerging talent has made such a huge difference,” she says. “We encourage women to see that anything is possible; we talk about our own journey and work out how they can be the best they can be.”

Whalar, one of the world’s top-five marketing influencer platforms, has achieved similar gains through mentoring. Some 25 of its 41 staff are women, and co-founder James Street believes gender equality has created a better workplace and been significant to Whalar’s growth. “Mentoring is key as it’s about encouragement, support and collaboration for women to develop their skills and confidence not only in their current role but for their next role and the one after that,” he says.


2. Recruit with equality

Recruitment processes are a key opportunity to create a balanced workforce. KPMG has worked to create gender equality through its ‘IT’s her future’ campaign, which has increased the rate of women coming into technical roles from 30% to 50%. “Now, we’ve moved the focus to inspiring girls at school to think about careers in IT,” says Heneghan.


“We need to change perceptions and remove the barrier where executives fail to see diversity as an issue that has a direct impact on business performance”


Lisa Heneghan, global head of technology, management consulting, KPMG

As more women achieve senior roles, your company should naturally become a more balanced recruiter.

“People hire people who are similar to themselves,” says Kira Mahel, whose personal training company MotivatePT offers a course for female empowerment and success in a male-dominated work environment. “More women in hiring roles means more women hired at junior and mid-senior levels,” she says. “This builds a strong pool of women who can one day advance to senior-level positions within the company.”


3. Give support to parents

Explore Learning’s maternity scheme has played a role in helping the company attain and retain top female talent.

“Another aspect that can’t be overlooked is having those human conversations around how new parents can make balancing work and family a success,” says Haycox. “I’m really passionate about line managers sitting down and listening to them because it’s never the same for every woman.

“It’s been so important for line managers to have that conversation and see how we can help them specifically. We also make sure our new mothers have other women who are mothers to talk to so they can discuss any issues they’re having and learn from others. This networking is important so that women know they’re supported throughout. We also offer a contribution to a return-to-work coach for mums; the feedback we’ve had has been fantastic so far.”


4. Offer flexible working

“Working mothers make up a large proportion of the workforce. Flexible working hours are an imperative part of understanding your female employees and making them feel valued,” says Mahel.

Haycox agrees, adding that flexible working promotes loyalty and trust. “My colleagues make it work, and I trust them to do this,” she says. “If we offer our staff flexibility and have honest, supportive conversations, they will always go the extra mile.”

It’s also important to help women cope with unexpected childcare needs. Howard’s survey found that 68% of women said if their children were ill or needed childcare for an unplanned reason, it would be themselves rather than a partner leaving work to care for the child.

“Unplanned childcare is impacting a significant proportion of working mothers – yet seems to be a topic that is effectively taboo,” she says. “When a child suddenly falls ill, this can create difficulties for both employees and employers. We must be honest with each other about what that means, so that we can develop strategies to address those difficulties.”


5. Introduce pay transparency and equality

“Providing equal pay for men and women is essential and transparency is key here,” says Howard. “In our survey, 15% of women said that their male colleagues are paid more than them, but this statistic could be so much higher because 43% said that they didn’t know whether they’re paid more or less. This transparency and accountability in pay scales is still severely lacking, and it would hugely help businesses to be more open about pay.”

Explore Learning has bucked national trends by achieving a median gender pay gap of 0%. “Back in 2017, we introduced our first pay spines to promote transparency of pay,” says Haycox. “This mechanism ensures that men and women are paid equally for the jobs they complete, removing any opportunities for bias, which can only benefit us in the long term.”

Mahel agrees, adding that equal pay sends a clear message to women that they are valued. “If women know they’re not being paid the same as their male counterparts, this could lead to serious repercussions such as dissatisfaction and high turnover rates,” she says.


Getting women into senior roles checklist

  • Introduce a mentoring scheme aimed at helping women progress in their careers
  • Ensure your recruitment and promotion processes support female applicants
  • Provide support for members of staff who are parents
  • Offer flexible working arrangements
  • Ensure your pay scale is equal and transparent

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