Every organisation I have worked for over the last 10+ years has tried and failed to figure out how to get more women into the echelons of senior leadership. They just cant seem to figure out how to attract and retain women beyond a certain level and therefore in the UK on average only 15% of executive level roles are held by women. Whilst this number is above the global average it is still unacceptably low when we know that having a diverse leadership team makes for better business and positively impacts the bottom line. Research and studies correlate gender diversity with profitability and value creation, with executive teams showing the strongest correlation.
Progress has at least been made in understanding why women are leaving or changing what appear to be interesting, exciting and even lucrative careers but what organisations still cant figure out is how to retain them and therefore the percentage of women on boards and at senior leadership levels has barely shifted.
Working in the HR space I have seen organisations churn out initiatives and programmes aimed at accelerating the careers of women deemed high potential or talented at that critical point in their career. Initiatives designed with the best intentions and to some extent some successful, at least for the individual women in these cohorts. However these initiatives have only gone part of the way to address the gap and not really addressed the real issues that face women.
Because although time and society has moved on, organisations are still focused on the same things they were addressing 10 years ago, treating support and development as the silver bullet. But getting there is no longer the challenge. Women know that senior leadership is within their grasp because they’ve watched the women that went before them do it and therefore to some extent know how to get there themselves.
Women don't actually want or need any more female leadership or development programmes. Our needs are not that different from our male counterparts. We do not want to be given special or preferential treatment, we actually want to earn roles and promotions because we are credible and experienced candidates not because we are part of some diversity slate.
Witnessing that it is possible to achieve those senior leadership positions the real challenge for women that have young families or are thinking about starting families is whether the effort it takes to get to the top and maintain operating in that space is worth it. Because what is different for most women is what shifts once you have children. Sometimes immediately, sometimes a little later, but at some stage there is an awareness of the compromises one must make to balance both motherhood and career. Compromises that over time are simply not sustainable without a significant degree of support be it from a spouse, family member or by outsourcing parts of your life as those women at the very top inevitably at some stage do to manage and “have it all”. Which is why female leadership programmes and acceleration programmes have little longevity, to the extent that they get women there but don’t necessarily keep them there. Why? Because they aren't addressing the critical issues which are not gender issues but deeply ingrained organisational and cultural issues that significantly impact women in particular.
Promoting women whilst on maternity leave or accelerating their careers at the inflection point of their life and career does not address the challenges that women face, it simply compounds them. What women actually need to make it a fair and equitable trade off is flexibility that doesn't look like going into the office between 9am - 4pm and then continuing to work from home from 8pm - 11pm. Its flexibility that isn't limited to 20 - 30 days off a year to spend with children and loved ones, though arguably this is a benefit that should extend well beyond just women because wouldn't we all be happier, more engaged people if we got to spend more time with the people who matter to us the most?
Ultimately what women need to make that ascent to the top not only worthwhile but sustainable is to work in a world that doesn't put such heavy limitations on how much time and access we have to our children and families, but is instead focused on the results we deliver.
3 Things you can do to help shatter your own glass ceiling
1. Take advantage of any dynamic working arrangements in your organisation. Explore whether your work day could be flexed to match your family life better. Starting or finishing earlier or later or agreeing work from home arrangements could be small tweaks that have significant impact for you and your family. Similarly scaling up holiday leave if you have the option to buy additional days or building up additional time in lieu through flexi time are all things that can help you feel like you have more balance between home and work.
2. Set and honour your personal boundaries. Be clear on what they are with yourself and with your team. By clearly communicating your boundaries you remove any confusion or need to continually re-communicate which will make it feel easier to leave the office every day without any unwanted guilt.
3. Get the support you need to get to the top and stay there, be it a mentor, a coach, a network or a series of development initiatives. Dont under estimate the value of having some type of support network to lean into and help you on your way. There is nothing more valuable than having people you can talk to that are on the same journey or have been there and learnt the lessons so that you don't have to. Knowledge is power, but experience is gold dust.