UK: How to win a war for talent.

UK: How to win a war for talent. - How to win a war for talent - If business hopes to cash in on the abilities of women, says one of our 10 to watch, Debbie Sandford, it must address workplace flexibility.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How to win a war for talent - If business hopes to cash in on the abilities of women, says one of our 10 to watch, Debbie Sandford, it must address workplace flexibility.

As the nature of work has changed, with productivity now more than ever dependent on the quality of the workforce, it has become the fashion to speak of a war for talent. Most major companies expend a lot of energy recruiting the brightest and best. Today we are told the 'news' that young women are more sought after than young men because, as well as having academic achievements, they more often possess interpersonal skills.

So what's new? When I started work in the mid-'80s, as many women as men were entering the professions and many business sectors. In those days, we used to believe in the time-lag theory - that women were under-represented in senior management because they had not been entering these fields in sufficient numbers for long enough.

Fifteen years on and we were clearly wrong. Women are significantly under-represented not only in the most senior jobs, but also in the group of younger, fast-track middle managers aspiring to be the top management of tomorrow. So why is this?

Perhaps I have been fortunate, but I have encountered very little overt discrimination in my professional life. There are plenty of other, less obvious things that make it more difficult for women to reach the same positions as men. The fact that women have fewer management role models makes it harder to develop a leadership style that supports their advancement.

Even if women get substantial support at home, they are still expected to be, and usually want to be, the primary carer for small children.

The inherently clubby nature of business development also poses real problems.

What interpretation will a male client put on your asking him out to lunch, or dinner, if you are female?

There is, though, another side to this phenomenon that is less often debated. This is that, while it is harder for women to reach the same position as men in the workplace, they also have less to gain from it than men.

The first reason is financial. In a comparative study of high-achieving, professional men and women in the US, the most significant difference was their average family income: the women's was much higher than the men's. The simple explanation is that women still tend to choose as partners men who earn as much or more than they do, while many of the men's partners earned little or nothing. This must be true in the UK, too.

So while many lower and middle-income women have to work, those very women with the potential to become senior managers often do not. As a working mother, facing the constant pressure of setting aside enough time with the children, the option of giving up a stressful, full-time job is a very attractive one - and if one doesn't need the money, there are times when it can seem downright insane to keep on working. There is also the high cost of fully flexible childcare to think about.

Equally important, though, is the fact that while a busy, successful professional man in our society is almost universally respected, this is not true for a woman - particularly if she has children. Almost all working women live with some criticism of their life choices, from family and friends, the media, themselves.

As a result, women are far more ambivalent than men about achieving material success, and about the ambition and competitiveness that are the prerequisites of such achievement. These qualities threaten our ability to empathise with others, which is essential to being seen as a socially successful woman.

Which brings me to the question of identities. Men's tend to be much more dependent on their work than women's. Child psychology teaches us that boys tend to see their social world in terms of hierarchies, while girls perceive it as a network of relationships. Women define themselves through these relationships - as mothers, friends, wives, daughters - as much as through what they do. What they do to earn self-esteem and approval does not have to involve earning money.

The net result is that business is facing a massive problem retaining the most talented members of 50% of the labour pool - those very women with the potential to rise to the top. Yet rather than perceive this as a systemic, epidemiological issue, management often takes a very narrow, case-by-case view - something like 'she just can't hack it'. Or they struggle with the 'glass-ceiling' imagery which, by its very nature, casts women as victims.

But, by and large, we are not victims; we are making our own choices. So what can business do about this? The sad corollary of accepting the fact that this is a much broader issue than it is often acknowledged to be is that companies' spheres of influence are significantly fewer and smaller than might be suggested by a different diagnosis. But there are steps to be taken.

The first is to focus far more energy on staff retention. Companies could do far more in terms of subsidising childcare, or even golden handcuffs, for talented women who get pregnant. They could also offer more generous paternity leave and create flexible environments that assist both men and women to combine work and extra-curricular activities.

The world is changing. We are ever more demanding in terms of customising our lifestyles. And the brightest and best of tomorrow will be the most demanding of all.

They want a world that will allow women and men to choose to stay at home if they want to, or to work 100 hours a week, or any combination in between.

Individual lifestyles will be dictated by inclination and ability, not gender. This should encourage productivity. But if we want to move the workplace in this direction, we first must understand and debate the societal issues we face regarding women in management. It is not clear that this is happening at the moment.

Debbie Sandford of Random House is shown at top left

ON THEIR WAY ...

10 TO WATCH

1

HEATHER RABBATTS

It takes a special kind of person to rise to prominence by being a successful council leader. When not being pursued by documentary film-makers, Rabbatts is chief executive of one of London's toughest and most controversial boroughs, Lambeth. The Jamaican-born Rabbatts, 43, was educated in England and was called to the Bar in 1981. She has been spoken of as a candidate for mayor of London next year.

2

PENNY HUGHES

Hughes has made it once already but could be set for a second round.

First known by being named president of Coca-Cola UK at 33, Hughes again made headlines three years later when she stepped down for family reasons.

Hughes retains a strong business presence with other top companies, serving as a non-executive director with the likes of Vodafone, Mirror Group and Body Shop.

3

CAROLINE GOODALL

When BSkyB's takeover move on Manchester United hit the headlines, it had been Goodall, a partner at City law firm Herbert Smith, who had worked through the small hours of the night to get the deal completed. Oxford-educated, Goodall, 43, began her legal career at Slaughter & May, another big City firm, before moving to Herbert Smith, where she became a partner in 1987. She now heads Herbert Smith's corporate finance department.

4

CHRISTINE WALKER

As chief executive in Britain of Zenith Media, the media buying specialist, Walker, 45, had all the trappings of success in that competitive sector.

But a year ago she extracted herself from her old employer (which was not as easy as it sounds) and quickly set up in business as Walker Media, with a partner and the backing of M&C Saatchi. 'We have set out our stall to be centre stage,' she said at the time.

No one doubts she will deliver.

5

DEBBIE SANDFORD

The managing director of Random House Children's Books, Sandford, 33, was a McKinsey consultant before going on to earn a Harvard MBA. She went into publishing a few years ago, joining Reed Consumer Books just ahead of its sale to Random House.

6

JOHANNA WATEROUS

The first woman to be appointed a director at McKinsey in London, Waterous, 41, a Canadian, came to London in 1985 after two years at Harvard Business School. She advises several leading European companies on consumer practices.

7

DENISE O'DONOGHUE

A former accountant with Coopers & Lybrand in the late '70s, O'Donoghue, 43, opted for a livelier living when she and comedian Jimmy Mulville set up independent Hat Trick Productions, well known for its satirical Have I Got News for You programme.

8

YVETTE COOPER

The MP for Pontefract and Castleford, 29, who is married to Ed Balls, adviser to the chancellor, was an economics journalist before her election.

One well-placed New Labour source, when asked about her, said: 'Oh, you mean the next prime minister?'

9

PIPPA WICKS

One of an army of former Bain & Co consultants who are now running British businesses, Wicks, 36, recently left Courtaulds Textiles, where she had been finance director, to join Pearson, where she is to head a newly created division in management education.

10

CAROL FISHER

The new head of the Central Office of Information comes to the sensitive government post from a background in sales and marketing, including a spell at Talk Radio where she had been credited with an 80% surge in airtime sales before CLT sold its UK stations.

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