What's still holding women leaders back?

A panel at MT's Inspiring Women conference tackled some of the big questions, from unconscious bias to 'Tiara Syndrome.'

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 22 Mar 2016

Despite some improvement over the last few years, we're bombarded with stats showing that women are still under-represented in the workplace. One of the favourites at MT’s Inspiring Women conference in Edinburgh today was that there are more men called John who are CEOs and chairs of FTSE 100 firms than there are women. What can be done to improve this picture? 

Do your job to the best of your ability – and shout about it

There’s definitely an element of self-reflection needed. On the Future Leaders panel Rebecca Alexander, MT columnist and executive coach at The Coaching Studio, referenced the so-called Tiara syndrome. ‘I was always the person who never put my hand up at school,’ she says. ‘Keeping your head down and hoping the manager notes how hard you work, taps you on the shoulder and says you should be promoted.’

Carla Buzasi, global chief content officer at WGSN, agrees. ‘There’s an element of luck but I also think I made my own luck.’ When working for AOL, she was waiting for a tube one day and received an email saying the company was buying The Huffington Post. Buzasi looked up Arianna Huffington’s email and sent her a message saying she loved the Huffington Post and would jump at the chance to launch it in the UK. ‘She got back to me that day.’

Enthusiasm and communication will get you ahead

In a job interview there are certain qualities our panel thought signified promising leaders. ‘I like people bouncing out of their chairs in excitement,’ says Buzasi. ‘It has meant I’ve hired some mad people, but they need to be able to inspire,’ she says. ‘If they can’t display that in the interview process then I don’t think they’ll be able to.’ And ask questions. ‘It shows engagement.’

Poppy  Mitchell-Rose, associate director of PR specialists freuds , thinks the ability to communicate has changed. ‘So much of how we consume media is a bulletin on the TV in the background,’ she points out. ‘Leaders need to get out there and communicate, we need to understand their motivations and what makes them tick. It’s no longer enough just to hide away in the boardrooms and make decisions.’

Taking the bull by the horns as an organisation

And of course businesses themselves need to help more women move up the ladder. Aberdeen Asset Management's head of investment solutions Archie Struthers says the company's boardroom split  is 13 men and four women - but that’s soon to become three. ‘It’s partly good news and partly bad,' he says. The woman leaving is 'joining a competitor to become CEO, but then that takes our split back under 30%’.

The general workforce is more even, but like many firms that becomes more distorted as seniority increases. ‘We’re doing a lot around unconscious bias. We’re running training schemes across the workforce starting with the management.’

So there's much more to be done, especially from a corporate perspective, to tackles hidden biases. Another of our conference speakers, Debbie Crosbie, COO at Clydesdale Bank, put it well: ‘You can’t change what you’re not aware of, but when you are aware of it you must change.’

We're tweeting along with the Inspiring Women conference from @WhatCeiling. Join in with the #InspiringWomen hashtag.

Missed out on Inspiring Women Edinburgh? There's still time to get tickets to our Birmingham conference on 21st April - check out the programme here.

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