Why aren't there more women at board level? Discuss

By: Rachel Miller

Date: 7 September 2012

Hilary Devey{{}}I was a bit worried when I saw that Hilary Devey was investigating why more women don’t get to the top in business on BBC2. I have to confess that I thought she might have pulled the ladder up behind her.

She started out by saying: “if I can do it, why can’t every woman do it?”

Hats off to her though. Not only is she one of the few women at the top of business — she’s in the very male-oriented world of haulage. But would she be the right person to find out why more women don’t get into the boardroom?

As it turned out, she was excellent and she made some fascinating discoveries — not least in her own company Pall-Ex.

The figures on women at the top speak for themselves. Girls outshine boys at school and outnumber male students at university. But things change in the world of work. The male/female ratio in middle management is 70/30 and it is a staggering 83/17 in senior management.

All credit to Sir Roger Carr, president of the CBI, who called this a “shocking waste of talent”.

The lessons learned by Procter & Gamble

Of course, it’s very easy to put the statistics down to the simple fact that women tend to do the majority of childcare. That’s what Procter & Gamble assumed at a time when its senior management team was dominated by men. But when it investigated the mass exodus of women — by interviewing those that had left — it found that 95% had gone on to another job, not to become stay-at-home mums.

The problem was that the women couldn’t find the work-life balance they needed at P&G and they didn’t see a career path for themselves in a company that was dominated by men at the top.

P&G knew something had to change. Their own research showed that mixed teams performed 5% better than single sex teams — enough to add serious revenue to the bottom line.

By introducing flexible working they manage to retain more of their female talent and promote more women into the top jobs.

Vive la difference

The effectiveness of mixed teams was tested in the programme with a tower-building challenge. Lo and behold, the mixed team made the tallest and strongest tower, compared to the efforts of all-male and all-female teams. But what this experiment also showed was that women and men have very different leadership and communication styles.

These differences are not a problem — indeed, combining the approaches of both men and women ensures a better outcome — but traditionally, some of the more male attributes in business have been celebrated more than the female.

So businesses that want to attract and retain talented staff need to appeal to and cater for both sexes. As one of the contributors said, recruitment adverts calling for candidates with gravitas, for instance, might as well say, “man wanted”.

The cost of parental leave

OK, now we get to the thorny issue of parental leave. Hilary Devey addressed it head on. Is it detrimental to a business to employ women of child-rearing age? The business owners she spoke to were adamant that their recruitment process was aimed at finding the right person for the job.

However, Kathy Tilbury, managing director of coach company Excelsior, was candid — she calculated that she had spent an additional “£8-10,000” covering her sales and marketing manager’s maternity leave. However, she also admitted that retaining talent in the long term saves on recruitment costs and time spent training new staff.

Inside Pall-Ex

Women at board level{{}}

Eventually we got to the nitty gritty — was Pall-Ex a good place to work for women? Was Hilary (the only woman on the board) a queen bee using her “erotic capital” to rule her roost? (excuse the mixed metaphors). These were the questions that consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox was asking as part of a “gender balance audit” at Pall-Ex.

She discovered that women were only represented in the middle echelons of Pall-Ex. There were very few women in the warehouse and only one woman on the board. Avivah suggested that Hilary had succeeded in part because she was a woman — and a woman capable of making some of her male colleagues quake in their shoes at that. This seemed to come as a surprise to Hilary, but was obviously not an unpleasant discovery.

But the audit also revealed that the most profitable department in the business had a gender balance of 50/50. At this point, Hilary Devey really sat up and took notice.

The need for balance

What the programme demonstrated was that having a balanced workforce with men and women equally represented at all levels is good for business. And although it can be challenging managing parental leave and childcare — as much for working parents as for employers — this is a fact of life that we can’t change. But what we can change is how businesses operate. Which is precisely what Hilary Devey promises to do at Pall-Ex.

Next week: Hilary sets out to transform the prospects for women inside her own business.

What do you think? Please share your views and experiences in the comment box.

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