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Law for Business

Knowhow - guidance - precedents

06 SEP 2012

Girl Power

The Spice Girls have now been replaced by The Saturdays and the girls of the 90's are the women of the 21st century, but if they are not in girl bands, or appearing on X-factor or Britain's Got Talent, then how do women make their voice heard and their mark on Britain? In April we ran a series of blogs on Boardroom diversity, but the inequality for women goes beyond the Boardroom; it is not just in business and government that there is under representation of women.

Women make up more than 50% of the population, yet just 5% of sports media coverage features women and only 14% of senior police officers are female. And this continues even in the face of evidence advocating greater female involvement.

According to the report by Lord Abersoch called ‘Women on Boards' published in February 2011, companies with a strong female representation at board and top management level perform better than those without. That is enough reason to increase the presence of women at higher levels in all organisations.

Theresa May, Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality has reiterated this, saying ‘Inclusive and diverse boards benefit from fresh perspectives, new ideas and broad experience. A company with a board that reflects the people it serves is better able to understand its customers and there is growing evidence that companies with more women on their boards outperform their male dominated rivals'.

So where are the women ... and what can women do to help others progress?

In an attempt to address the death of women in public life, a project was launched in Wales in 2005 between Oxfam UK Poverty Programme, Wales Women's National Coalition and the Welsh National Federation of Women's Institutes called ‘Women Making a Difference Programme'. Initially funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Lloyds TSB and Oxfam, with later funding coming from the Welsh Assembly, the WMAD research set out to identify barriers preventing women from taking up influential positions in public life. Although focused on the absence of women in public life, the findings are just as applicable to the private sector and Board presence.

WMAD's research found clear evidence that women suffered from a lack of confidence as well as being unaware of all the opportunities available to them, were less attracted by the promise of power than men and more concerned about time commitments conflicting with other jobs/roles and childcare responsibilities and perceived the culture of public bodies as being about ‘old boys networks'. Add to this the cost of and difficulty for many in finding good reliable childcare and it is not surprising the number of women who chose to step off the corporate ladder or never embark on the second stage.

WMAD took its research findings and put into action a programme to educate and empower women from all backgrounds, encouraging them to take an active role in influencing the decisions which impact on their life. The programme includes training, personal development, mentoring and role shadowing to increase confidence, knowledge and realise potential and to keep taking steps up the ladder. WMAD has had many successes with the women who have taken advantage of the programme in Wales and the concept is being rolled out into other parts of Britain.

Similar networks and programmes operate in specific business sectors. The absence of women at the top of the legal profession is well recognised, despite the fact that over 50% of law graduates are women. There are far fewer female law firm partners then men. The same is true of the Bar; of 46 honorary QC's made in the last 12 years only seven were women. The introduction of family friendly policies at many law firms has had little impact on female presence at the upper levels. The need to address this under representation has prompted the establishment by a group of female partners at top city law firms of a network whereby partners (both male and female) act as mentors for younger female lawyers to support their career development. This includes encouraging them to recognise their management talents, instil self belief and promote themselves.

Those who believe that better childcare is the only answer to equal representation of women in the corporate world are misguided. Yes, it is a strong factor, but there is much more. The experience and findings of WMAD and the Lawyers Group are not unique; confidence and the desire and ability of women to push themselves forward in arenas dominated by men is a significant impediment to female advancement. This needs the recognition, understanding and help of both men and women who have already achieved career advancement.

Even with better (or even free childcare) there are many factors in the female psyche which must be explored and assisted to enable women to ‘shout about their achievements' and rise to the top along side their male equals. Sexual equality has come a huge way in the last 100 years but there is still a long way to go; and business as well as society will benefit from it when it is finally achieved.

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