Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Guardian Professionals' Women in Leadership: Celebrating the Reality of Life

I'm a fairly avid Guardian reader; always have been.  So when I discovered that Guardian Professionals was launching a new section called Women in Leadership I was intrigued.  Part of me was really interested to see that gender diversity was finally getting recognition in the media, and whilst the other part was frustrated that such a section was needed. 

I met up with Harriet Minter, the head of Women in Leadership, to discuss exactly why she thought it necessary to trial such a group.

Having worked within the Guardian Professionals section for the last three years, where the paper tries to talk to readers 'with their work hats on', she developed a proposal for a section that addresses the challenges that being a woman - specifically a woman in leadership - poses within the workplace.  With a membership of 7000 after a month, there's definitely interest.  It's about highlighting the issues and the problems that stop women getting those top jobs, and it's different for different industries: for Engineering it starts when a girl gets a doll instead of a lego set; and in Accounting it's making that leap from Senior Management to Director.  (Approximately 60% of graduates taken on by the Big Four accountancy firms are women, compared with the 12% of women who make director).

Women in Leadership is kind of like LinkedIn for female executives - although membership is not limited to women.  The idea to is to inspire aspiring women leaders by holding conferences that deal with specific issues (ranging from career breaks to pay), provide quarterly reports for its members, and tap into the 'wealth of experience that's already out there', inviting established CEOs, Directors and Partners to write articles about their own experiences for the website.

But why start a supplement like this now?

Minter argues that for her, at least, it is twofold.  'On a professional level, I look around me and see women I went to school and university with - women who were always top of their class - turning round and saying that there's no point going for promotion.  That they just won't get it.  And that's something that's only been happening within my group of friends over the last couple of years.  On a personal level, it makes me angry to think that my ability to help my parents as they get older and develop my own career may be curtailed just because I'm a woman and may decide to have children at some point.'

This is a point where I'd like to put in a disclaimer:  for all those of you who read this, assuming that I'm angry and man-hating and that I think that women should run all companies and men should stay home to bring up the children...I don't.  It's true that I think that companies should echo the diversity of its clients - and that means ethnically and culturally, as well as in gender - and it's true that I think that women should not be hampered by their gender in advancing within their careers, but I try not to be reductive.  The whole point of feminism is to encourage the right to choose.  Women should be able to choose what path they take - whether that's focusing on career, or being a stay-at-home mum - neither choice is wrong.  Both should be open, as they should be to men.

However, we do need to push for change.  As Minter argues, companies should be made 'responsible for their own corporate governance', it's no longer acceptable for them to deny plausibility, as the Leverson inquiry has proven.  Organisations need to be braver.  Yes, there are issues - predominantly to do with childcare - but in not normalising the alternatives companies are still holding back women.  I think that the move to have m/paternity leave split equally between partners over a year by 2015 is fantastic - that way, neither partner will suffer.

Chris Sullivan, RBS's CEO, won a European Gender Diversity award recently.  He argues that it's no longer the role of women to fight for equality, but men's as well.  In 2011, the growth of men joining the RBS focus women's network exceeded the growth of women. 'This isn’t a men vs women thing', he argued. 'It is a men and women together recognising that this is an economic lever within your organisation.'

Towards the end of my conversation with Harriet Minter, we talked about the fact that there are a lot of good things about being a woman in business.  'There are advantages to standing out and there advantages to being a woman,' though the ideal is to move away from the idea that business have to hire a certain number of women - positive discrimination is just as insulting as negative.

At the end of the day, business is business.  You can't, and indeed shouldn't, make allowances for anyone because of their background, but at the same time we live in a multicultural and diverse society and companies should 'celebrate the reality of life'.


  1. Yes it's striking that in a society of supposed "political correctness gone mad" there is so much discrimination against women in many key industries, not to mention the indirect barrier posed by cultural discouragement. Some of these stats are pretty shocking: http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/58961000/jpg/_58961922_graphjobs.jpg
    E.g. Women make up nearly 50% of scientists but only 6.5% of engineers. Women are just as good at maths and science as men as far as we can tell, yet they are hugely under-represented in certain types of (traditionally male) high status jobs where these abilities are needed.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly - the most discouraging thing is that most of the time it's not intended. We need to challenge societal norms, even those which aren't intended.