Since I started writing this blog, the post I’ve had most requested is for me to write something about being a senior woman in business. I’ve resisted this, for a couple of reasons. Partly because I hate the fact that this is even something to write about, that it’s in any way newsworthy. If I were male, would I be getting a load of requests to write about being a senior man in business? Probably not.
Perhaps more pertinently, I couldn’t see how I could possibly sum up everything I thought about being a woman in business into one blog post – it was more likely to be a thesis!
However, on the basis that the more we normalise women in senior roles, the more likely it is that more women will progress into senior roles, I’ve decided to write the first of what I suspect will end up being a series of posts about my personal career experience, the current status of women in business and how we can do more to help more women progress. As always, I would love to hear your views and get your feedback – you can find me over at Twitter or on LinkedIn; please do feel free to get in touch.
Going back 15 years, I started my career in a somewhat unorthodox matter, by training as a professional actor at Birmingham School of Acting. My acting career was short-lived – I realised that it and my desire to get onto the property ladder were likely to be mutually exclusive! – and I somehow found myself thrust into the HR profession, via a brief stint as a secretary.
I mention the fact that my background is in professional theatre because I believe it is extremely relevant to the manner my career has progressed since. Drama school is utterly brutal. Every so called myth you will have heard about prospective actors being broken down to be built back up again is absolutely true. To get through the three years, you will have to learn to become both physically and mentally hard as nails. It is one of the single most challenging things I have ever done.
Having said that, the rewards are immense. If you make it through the three years – and this is by no means guaranteed – you come out the other side believing you are capable of just about anything. Acting is a notoriously flighty profession, and I knew that career stability as an actor was far from guaranteed… but I also knew that, having survived the three years and come out fighting, the opportunities I now had ahead of me were unlimited.
Audition training equips you perfectly to tackle the most complex of interviews. As a result, interviewing has always been a strength of mine, which I am sure is what allowed me to fairly effortlessly break through the barrier to securing my first HR role.
Fast tracked progression
From thereon in, my focus was simple. I wanted to progress as quickly as possible, I wanted to take on more and more responsibility, I wanted to be appropriately rewarded for my progression, and I wanted to fast-track my career. To ensure I achieved all of this, I set myself certain career goals. At the age of 21, I set myself the task of progressing to a management position by the age of 25. When I became a manager at 24, I targeted taking on operational management responsibilities (in addition to heading up the HR function) by the time I was 30. Etc, etc. You get the idea. To date, every career goal that I’ve set for myself, I’ve achieved, well ahead of schedule. Luck, I am sure, and being in the right place at the right time, has played a part… but so has delivering results, again, and again, and again. If you are single minded in your pursuit of progression, and consistently deliver results, I believe that anyone, regardless of their background, is capable of progressing just as far and as fast as they want to.
I got married when I was 24, had my first child at 25 and my second at 28. With both of my children I took 6 months’ maternity leave and then returned to the office working slightly reduced hours over a 4 day working week. At no point did it ever even occur to me that being a parent and having a career were mutually exclusive. I might have been working in a male dominated environment, but pretty much everyone else on the management team had children. If it wasn’t an issue for them, then why should it be an issue for me?
I was one of the youngest in my social circle to have children, so it probably wasn’t until I hit my 30s that it started to occur to me that what I was doing was anything other than the norm. Gradually, one by one, I watched my female friends and peers progress to a certain level, take a break to have children, and then return to work – if at all – to a much diluted version of their original role, working perhaps 2 or 3 days per week. When I talked to them about their career plans they were reticent. ‘I don’t really have any plans’, one of them told me. ‘I work because I have to.’ And that was about it.
Please don’t think, because that was my experience, that I think that that is the case for all women, with or without children – my personal career journey may not be the norm, but it is certainly not unique, and there are plenty of women out there pushing their careers forward in a similar manner to myself. However, it cannot be denied that they are in the minority. The question society has finally started to ask, is why.
The gender imbalance
There are fewer women in senior roles than men. Substantially fewer. It is a fact, backed up by a number of studies. The majority of organisations have little or no female representation at Board level. This means that boardrooms around the country are simply not representative of the nation’s demographic, and if we think there are not going to be knock on ramifications as a result then we are, frankly, kidding ourselves.
The issue that I have with the majority of reports on the subject I have seen is that they seem to be working towards a ‘one size fits all’ solution. “Women aren’t progressing into senior roles because: [easy to define reason with one simple solution].”
The fact is, the matter is far more complex than that. For a long time, working in my own individual bubble, I didn’t realise that there was anyone out there who didn’t think the same way as me: hell bent on career progression to the absolute top. With my eyes fully opened, I can see that not everyone out there wants that – whether male or female, not everyone wants to work at director level. I adore my job, and everything about it, but I am also entirely transparent that it is in no way an easy ride. Working at a very senior level can be isolated, and it can be extremely challenging, and that is simply not something which everyone wants to put themselves through.
However, we cannot fall into the trap of thinking that provides us with our quick fix answer either. For every individual – again, male or female – not working at director level because they have actively chosen not to, there are also a substantial number of individuals desperately wanting to progress, but being prevented from doing so, for a variety of reasons. I want to now start to understand what those reasons are… because once we have the answer to this, then, and only then, can we start to tackle the problem.
Moving things forward
To help me with my research, I’m undertaking a very short survey – you can find it here. I would be hugely grateful if you could not only complete it, but also share it as widely as possible amongst your network so that I can obtain as large a data set as possible. That data set will then be used as a basis for the further investigation I am looking to undertake, and will share back with you in future blog posts on this topic.
The number of senior women in business will never substantively increase unless we take steps to first uncover the barriers, and then seek to address them. I don’t simply want to be an observer to that process; I want to actively drive it forward and start to make a real and tangible difference.