Women are ready for the top, but is the top ready for them?
Times have changed, but still the path is not clear for women in more junior and middle management levels of government and for some who have spoken out such as Ursula Brennan and Helen Ghosh, there is more to their success story than simply creating the positions for them.
That is why the EU Commissioners are wrong when they say the answer is enforced quotas for UK companies. Lord Davies of Abersoch is right to disagree with this, but I think sadly, no-one has fully understood exactly why they won’t work and what the real issues are that must be tackled.
Has anyone considered that women may not want to reach the top because they may feel the top wouldn’t value them?
Women won’t want to go to the top because of a quota – it may even put them off. They will however make a decision based on whether the top is ready for them. Today’s modern woman has more than the single goal of making it to the board table. For mothers, this is especially so. For them, a number of factors have to come together before it is even a possibility and many won’t make it until they have completed the early years of motherhood.
I will give you an example. Many of my colleagues in the Civil Service agree that their future success depends on 3 lifelines:
1. Understanding partner/good support network (to allow you to totally exploit all goodwill)
2. Good quality reliable and affordable childcare (harder than it sounds)
3. Good employer (flexible working hours)
If one of these flimsy lifelines should fail, their whole journey up the ladder could too. Quotas fail to recognise this. Employers often fail to recognise this. In Norway quotas have to a large extent only been a success because of the excellent childcare.
The corporate approach to bringing young women into organisations and keeping them is still hit and miss in the UK, especially if they become mothers along the way. This, despite such progress at permanent secretary level, is also true in Whitehall and leaves some of my very capable female colleagues wondering if the top is worth it, even if the door was wide open.
A colleague of mine recently accepted a senior civil service promotion in the Home Office on a four day week – progress. But on her ‘day off’ she has a baby on her lap and the phone to her ear all day, such is the pressure of the job. Despite a decent increase in female senior civil servants, government departments have yet to master how to ensure women don’t just give up.
Many of the female ministers and women I worked for in government were sympathetic when I had to run for the 5pm train to save my child from abandonment syndrome. Male ministers and their special advisers however would regularly schedule last minute ‘urgent’ meetings, that were not urgent, at 6pm and sooner or later, after a few no-shows, it was easy to find yourself out of the loop.
It is clear PM’s too have struggled to demonstrate the value of women in the workplace. Despite the symbolic Blair babes photoshoot in 1997, his first cabinet included only five women, none of whom had young children. Despite the increase in female MPs in this election, fewer than 20% of the Cabinet is female. At the most senior level of government, eight European countries have a cabinet (or council of ministers) that includes at least 40% of each gender. Our report about candidate selection highlighted some of the challenges in the UK.
Junior ministers and would-be MPs will never make it to the top if we don’t accept that there is still inequality of responsibility in the home and a lack of understanding in the workplace. Women are still mostly responsible for organising nannies, play dates, nutrition and clothing, homework and school projects, caring for other family members as well as their own careers – albeit with supporting husbands and partners. Their career to the top takes time, sacrifice and good resources. Our IfG report on candidate selection showed how true this was for would-be MPs.
Women are multi-taskers, but can they really do it all, get to the top and stay there? Yes, I say, but first we need to take a serious look at the top and ask, is the top ready for us?