“She died for me”.
With the innocence and naivety of an eleven-year-old, my daughter – buzzing with excitement – told me how she’d learnt about Emily Wilding Davison at school, and how she’d died to help girls like herself achieve equality and gain the vote.
If only it were that simple.
Today marks the 107th year of International Women’s Day, established by the Suffragettes with a founding aim to achieve gender parity. Sadly, despite my daughter’s enthusiasm, its aims have not been realised. According to the World Economic Forum, if we continue at our current pace, equality between the sexes won’t be achieved until 2186 – another 169 years.
More pressing from my perspective as a Managing Director with a majority female board and more than 40 female employees, is that almost four in ten businesses in G7 countries still have no women in senior management positions, despite extensive evidence that diverse boards outperform male-only peers by $655 billion. It makes sound commercial sense to include women at the top table, so why are there still so few of them, and how can we ensure that our daughter’s generation enjoy parity that has so far eluded ours?
There is no straightforward answer to this incredibly complex question.
Data from over 985,000 men and women across 48 countries shows that, universally, women have lower levels of self-esteem than their male counterparts – something I encounter on a daily basis working with women across the spectrum in business. When putting themselves forward for a promotion, most women aren’t prepared to wing it in the same way as their male counterparts. Men will apply for a job if they meet 60% of the qualifications, but women will only apply if they meet 100%. Look to any industry panel and it is filled with men of a certain age and colour; however, this is not for lack of trying. An industry colleague recently expressed his frustration at not being able to track down women to participate in his panel.
Education plays a key part in this debate. While girls are killing it in the classroom, these early successes do not necessarily translate into later career success. By just ten years old, their subject and career choices can become firmly gender-segregated and only 20% of girls will go on to complete their A-Level Physics. Is our education system cementing outdated stereotypes by funnelling children down routes traditionally associated with gender? It certainly seems that way when you look at the data from last year’s A-level results:
Later down the line, the traditional 9-5 bums-on-seats structure of corporate life becomes less suited to the requirements of women as they progress into their 30s and start a family. By this time, women have the experience and knowledge to be significant assets to their employer, but it is also the time when they are most likely to leave the business and start a family.
The structure of a traditional company is often unmanageable with the new priorities in their lives. On returning from maternity leave, I found that my role had shifted to Europe, requiring me to be overseas Monday to Friday. I had no choice but to leave. With another pregnancy I took only 6 weeks maternity leave, terrified I would lose my job. These appalling situations forced me to create a business that worked around my needs, and allowed me to have a full and rewarding career that did not compromise my role as a mum to my two girls. Experiences like mine simply shouldn’t still be happening to women. The message they send rings loud and clear to both the employee and their colleagues – having a family will compromise your career.
So what’s the solution? In my opinion, talented and promising women should be singled out in their organisation and given separate mentoring and career development by women already in positions of leadership. Confidence in women is proven to skyrocket when they’re exposed to same-gender role models, helping them to focus on their skills and understand the benefits they bring to the table. In sectors where there is a significant lack of women in leadership positions – such as technology – organisations can look to corporations like Accenture for inspiration, who are working to encourage more young girls to choose a STEM career via specialist workshops and events.
I also urge organisations to consider adopting genuine flexible working practices that are designed to include parents who want to manage a successful career with a healthy family life. Yes, it does take a bit more effort to work around the needs of staff who want a work life balance. But guess what? In return, you’re rewarded with incredibly loyal and highly motivated staff that stay with you for years and are passionate about your business. Our senior team are mostly working mums and we’re the fastest growing pure-play tech PR and communications agency in the country, proof that with a little bit of flexibility you can have your cake and eat it – both as an employee and as a working parent.
It’s not only the future of business that will miss out if we don’t empower women to reach for the stars, it’s also our daughters, sisters, and granddaughters. The words of the Suffragettes have never rung more true than today; deeds not words.
By Victoria Usher, Founder and Managing Director