Women in leadership
A panel of women meet to discuss what more can be done to promote gender parity in the workplace. Sarah Perrin reports
According to the World Economic Forum, it will take 170 years to achieve global economic gender parity. This is a problem.
“Research has also demonstrated that greater gender parity drives better GDP,” said Fiona Sheridan CA, EY partner and leader of the firm’s UK Risk Transformation team, when chairing a round table discussion for The CA on Women in Leadership, at the Canary Wharf offices of EY. “Greater gender parity improves the performance of boards and financial and share price performance. It creates more diverse thinking.”
Encouragingly, Sheridan suggested that today’s world provides more opportunities for women than in the past. She said: “I am interested in trends around technology and how that equips you to work in a different way, and in the ageing workforce and the fact you can work longer in life.
"You can have a second or third career, so people who do take time out of the workforce can come back and have plenty of time ahead of them to get established. I think there are some opportunities that weren’t there when I was coming through the ranks as a partner.”
Sue Dawe CA, head of financial services for EY in Scotland and the regions, also thought the working environment had improved. “Organisations are getting better at recognising that women are different and the qualities they bring,” she said. “I now feel a lot more confident being ‘me’ than I did 20 years ago. It’s important to help women at a younger age gain that confidence.”
Addressing the confidence issue
Anneli Collins CA, a tax partner with Deloitte in London, suggested that women impose “two mindset restrictions” on themselves. “One is that we tend to lack confidence – or we assess our own abilities more honestly,” she said. “Rather than having a go and seeing how we get on, we worry that we can’t do something. So there’s a confidence issue to address.”
That lack of confidence can also result in women being tentative about asking for promotion. EY recognised this issue, Sheridan noted, introducing “active sponsorship” whereby high potential women had an “advocate” who would push them forward if the women failed to do this themselves.
“There is a skills issue here, to get women to step up and say, ‘Please promote me, I am interested,’” said Ros Taylor, a psychologist and CEO of leadership and coaching consultancy Ros Taylor Company.
Similarly, women could be helped by learning how to use the words that men like to hear. For example, male leaders may not realise that women are thinking strategically unless women explicitly say they are. Using words such as “strategic focus” and “vision” can completely change men’s perceptions, Taylor explained.
Jenny Chu CA, an international analyst with fintech association Innovate Finance (on secondment from Deloitte), thought there was scope for training male leaders as well. “We need to raise awareness among the leadership and partner group that men and women are slightly different,” she said. “While you might consider somebody who is very outspoken to be confident, there are other ways of demonstrating competence.”
Similarly, increased self-awareness through psychometric testing and profiling, and learning about “unconscious bias”, could benefit both men and women. Suzy Kerton, CA, a full-time MBA student at Imperial College Business School in London and former financial accountant at the Cabinet Office, commented: “I’ve noticed that when people talk about the role of a CFO they say ‘he’ rather than ‘he or she’ or ‘they’. At Imperial we spend a lot of time talking about unconscious bias. It brings it to the forefront of people’s minds.”
Kerton believes gender equality is “not just a women’s issue” and has started a group at Imperial, named Allies, that brings men and women together to discuss how to tackle the matter.
The expectation to be a stay-at-home mum
The second mindset restriction that Anneli Collins thought women often imposed on themselves concerns the expectation that once they have children they should stay home to look after them. “Many of us were brought up in an environment where our mothers looked after us,” she said.
“We see that model and we follow it. It’s a big issue. So if we really want to change the balance [of men and women in leadership positions], it’s not about waiting until women get to work; it’s about going into schools and talking about these issues, talking to young girls and saying there’s nothing wrong with being at home if you want to do that, but there are other options.”
The participants agreed that issues around when to have children and how to look after them still pose particular challenges for women. Informal surveys among peer groups suggest women who build successful careers often decide not to have children, or they have male partners in less high-powered roles who work flexibly or give up work altogether. Couples where both individuals pursue demanding careers may opt for a nanny – but they need to reach a certain income level first.
Anna Coutts-Donald CA, director of Alternative Investments at Vistra, a provider of trust, fiduciary, fund and corporate services, said women had to find a balance between career and family, but this could be difficult.
“I have a 17-month-old boy,” she said. “My role involves a lot of promoting the brand – so do I go to a dinner or put my little boy to bed? My big challenge is about getting a balance. I might go to a dinner two nights a week, but I won’t do that five nights a week.”
The round table concluded with the sharing of advice for women aspiring to reach leadership positions, or advice that the participants’ would give their younger selves. “Find someone who inspires you,” said Nicola Mills. “They might not be in your team, or even in your organisation. But find them and use them – ask about their journey and make a development plan to get there.”
Read the full version of this article in the March 2017 edition of CA magazine