The MT Essays 40th Anniversary: Women in business - The long haul to parity

Great progress has been made since the '60s in the quest for female equality in the workplace, but there's still that pay gap. Tactics for accelerating change are overdue.

by David Pappie, Shell
Last Updated: 01 Apr 2016

If you believe in yourself, nothing is impossible. So said Michelle Dewberry after her victory on TV's The Apprentice. A truism indeed, but in the world of business, women have come up against obstacles that required a lot more than simple belief to overcome.

Even 40 years after the feminist revolution, educated working women - especially those in top jobs - are pioneers. MT's latest '35 Women Under 35' feature (July 2005) demonstrates the inroads that women are making across a wide range of professions and in science and engineering. No-one can doubt that there have been dramatic advances and that the climate is changing, but with only 11% of FTSE-100 women occupying a seat at the top table, we must not be blase. There is a long way to go yet.

So what will the next 40 years hold? I would certainly hope that this progress is accelerated and that we will see a much more representative boardroom. The Equal Opportunities Commission said earlier this year that it would take another 40 years for women to have the same sway in FTSE-100 companies as men. The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for greater opportunities for women, said that at the current rate of change it will take twice as long - 80 years - for women to close the full-time pay gap with men. At the current pace of change, it's going to be a long journey.

There is much talk of the existence of a glass ceiling and certainly individual, company-wide and societal barriers remain that prevent women from achieving their potential. Lack of senior female role models, commitment to personal and family responsibilities, stereotyping and preconceptions of women's roles continue to create bottlenecks in career progression. But time alone is no healer. For appropriate representation of women, firmer action is needed and in this effort we are all responsible.

A belief and determination among top leadership is essential to accelerate change and make a real difference. Only the people with the most influence can change the way an organisation is run. A visible and active role taken by senior management to integrate policies of diversity and inclusion into every aspect of an organisation's operation and culture is critical.

A company's culture, however, affects every employee, man and woman.

We cannot simply reach out just to women - we need to engage everyone in the organisation. Increasing the effectiveness of co-operation between men and women through better awareness of gender differences, different leadership styles and work/career patterns is one way forward. Both men and women will be further encouraged to use a variety of flexible work options to support family and personal needs, allowing them to achieve the goal of work/life balance, which has been shown to be a factor in increasing productivity.

A number of tactics can be employed to accelerate change and manage talent most effectively. These include identifying role models and establishing men- toring programmes, eliminating any bias in company policies and procedures, providing training and development for all, and actually going out to employees to educate them on the importance of diversity and inclusiveness rather than having management going through a box-ticking exercise.

No-one can claim that this is a quick and easy fix; it requires a sustained effort by all employees. We want a world where seeing women at senior levels of business is the norm, not the exception, but this will take time and persistence.

We must never be satisfied but continually seek to move further and faster, so that in 40 years' time, the workplace will be a much more accurate reflection of society, and people of all backgrounds will have the opportunity to realise their potential.

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