Denise Kingsmill: It's tougher for women

It's often more difficult for women to find answers to the tough questions posed by the world of work.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I frequently speak at conferences, seminars and other discussion groups about work. I suppose I am fairly well qualified to do this: I was an employment lawyer and I have led government inquiries into women's pay and employment, and human capital management. But it is probably my personal experience over a long and varied working life that has equipped me best for this task. Certainly, it is this I draw on most frequently when addressing my audience. The stories of success and of failure, the choices and changes made - these are the elements that interest my audience and draw the most questions at the end of my talk.

The young professional women who mostly attend these functions are hungry for information. They often describe problems and dilemmas for which there are no easy solutions; situations where the way forward is not clear; crossroads and turning points where they are uncertain as to which path to take. Usually, they are highly educated and well qualified: lawyers, accountants, bankers and businesspeople. Often, they have big jobs, control large budgets and manage teams. These women are used to thinking strategically, to taking decisions. Confident and articulate, they do not seek advice about how to do their jobs, but about how to manage their careers.

They want to know how to be successful, how to overcome obstacles and which direction to follow. Whether and when to have children, whether and how to change careers, how to deal with difficult bosses, how to have a life as well as a job, how to fight discrimination without being labelled 'difficult' - these are just some of the questions I'm asked.

I am impressed by the openness with which the women share these concerns with each other and myself. At similar events with a mixed-gender audience, there is more reticence. The questioning is dominated by the men, and I can't help feeling that their intention is to catch out the speaker with an erudite question designed to show off their superior knowledge rather than elicit information. But the men will often come up to me afterwards, and, with a contrasting shyness, ask the personal question about their own situation that they could not risk in front of their peers.

The universality of problems presented is striking. I have spoken at events organised by governments, corporations, universities and think-tanks, from Beijing to Seattle, and the similarity of the issues facing women at work is striking.

It's more difficult for women to find answers to such tough questions. In the main, the world of work continues to be the dominion of men, and there are fewer female role models. For many it remains a struggle to break free of the constraints imposed by family, society and religion. Stereotypes abound in education systems that create unconscious biases that lead girls into lower-paid caring professions while boys are encouraged in maths and the sciences, which are more highly valued.

The media, too, sends out confusing messages to women contemplating creating a family and successfully developing a career. In the Guardian recently, a front-page scare story gave precedence to a report that recommended all women should have a 'fertility check' at 30 or risk childlessness later, while on the inside pages there was another story about the workplace bullying and earnings losses suffered by women returning from maternity leave. So a young woman is left with the message that she should have a child before it is too late - but she must expect to suffer dire career consequences if she does so. No wonder she wants to hear from other women who have successfully negotiated this catch-22.

Women often have very different career trajectories from men. They tend to change jobs more frequently. They may move to avoid uncomfortable situations or relationships; many feel they have to move on to get on. Some men promote in their own image and favour the young man who reminds them of their younger self, overlooking the more talented woman. One job move was forced on me when I enquired about partnership prospects at the law firm where I worked and was told: 'We've never had a woman partner - and you won't be the first.' So I left to establish my own firm and then set about pinching their clients.

That was a long time ago and, now, employers would be more circumspect about expressing such views, but this does not mean that the problem has gone away - just that it is less blatantly articulated. The shocking absence of women in leadership roles in government, the public sector and in our companies is testimony to this, as is the widening pay gap.

MT has played an important role in highlighting the enormous variety of skills and talents of some of the most successful of the new generation of women in its '35 Women Under 35' series. Many of those recognised in this way have gone on to even bigger and better things as a result of the boost to their confidence that this endorsement has given them, and also because the media platform has brought them to the attention of CEOs and others enlightened enough to recognise that the presence of talented women improves the dynamic of boards, workplaces and even government.

We will know that the advantages of diversity and the high performance associated with good human capital management have been mainstreamed into our companies when there is no further need for a '35 Women Under 35' list. We all want a satisfying and rewarding career. It would be nice to have a level playing field, too.

Baroness Kingsmill CBE has been a non-executive director of various private and public boards. She is a non-executive director of British Airways and Korn/Ferry International

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