How To Bridge The Gender Gap: Lessons From The Top

10 min read

By Caroline Walker

Head of Marketing & Communication

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), last year men in the UK earned on average 18.4% more than women.

In the UK, the number of female CEOs in FTSE 100 firms has actually decreased from 8 to 6 since 2003.

In the US, the number of businesses with no women at all in senior roles is at its highest recorded level since 2011.

In the last 20 years, the gender pay gap has only improved by 0.5%.

As discussed in our previous blog, The Importance Of Female Talent And How To Attract It’, the benefits of a balanced workforce are manifold. Female presence at senior level improves decision making, strengthens customer orientation and, in turn, increases return on sales, equity and invested capital.

But whilst the corporate world seems to be taking action through more diversity and inclusion initiatives, the number of female leaders remains largely stagnant. Despite awareness of this issue increasing, top-level corporate culture and unconscious bias pose substantial barriers to women trying to reach seniority.

In this piece we speak to female leaders to hear their advice for companies trying to balance their boards and to women trying to pave the way.

The Gender Pay Gap

In recent years, the UK gender pay gap has become mainstream news. Over 10,000 firms submitted their pay gap figures this April, of which 78% disclosed a gap in favour of men. Construction, Finance, Insurance, and Education were exposed as the industries with the largest gaps and, amid the worst offenders, some firms fostered gaps of over 70%.

The gender pay gap is not unequal pay - paying women the same as men for the same job has been a legal requirement for 47 years.

The gender pay gap is the percentage difference between the average hourly earnings of men and women across all roles; the corporate gender pay gap refers to the gender balance within senior roles. The main issue this gap highlights then is not the treatment of those at the top, but the barriers preventing women from getting there.

The Reasons Behind The Gender Pay Gap

In an article for The Telegraph, Theresa May warned that Britain's gender pay gap is a "burning injustice" which must be tackled. She said that society will remain far "poorer" if outdated employment practices go unchallenged. Sure enough, with women making up 6 out of 10 university graduates across Europe and the US, and on the customer end, 80% of consumer decisions being made by women, companies who fail to balance their boards do so at their own disadvantage.

The Fawcett Society says caring responsibilities play the biggest part in this. Compared to men, midcareer women are 61% more likely to have a spouse or partner who is pursuing an equally or more intense career and 6 times more likely to be a primary parent. Women are therefore more likely to work in part-time roles with lower pay and fewer opportunities for progression.

What’s more, 41% of mid-career women believe they do not have the same opportunities as their male peers due to unconscious biases and longstanding cultural norms.

Whilst we could examine every reason underlying the lack of female presence at the top; an absence of role models, preconceptions about potential, prejudices and discrimination, gendered behaviours, cultural differences, lack of mentoring, caring responsibilities and inflexible maternity leave; we think it better to hear from the women at the top themselves.

Following the success of our previous blog and the number of responses we received from both clients and candidates on the topic, we interviewed a range of professionals to hear their thoughts, and to pass on their advice to companies and women alike.

CSG Interviews

 

Christina Youell, Owner of People and Performance

Christina is the Founder and CEO of People and Performance, a niche consultancy company that works with Boards and Executive teams providing coaching and facilitation. Christina set up the business 15 years ago, and now manages 4 other employees there.

“The most common thing I see is that women play by a different set of rules. Women have to be confident they can land a role before they go for it, whereas men don’t. Data itself tells us that. Men go for jobs when they know they can only fulfil 50% of the job description, and think for the other half ‘I can learn on the job’. Women will be able to do 90% and still deem themselves not ready.

“There’s a difference in where people place ownership for their success too. In my experience, women say ‘I’ve been very lucky’, so put success outside of themselves. Men point their own success to themselves, taking ownership where women struggle to, for fear of bragging or coming across too boastful. In the same way, when a man doesn’t get the job, the panel were idiots. When women don’t, they were the idiot for applying.

“My work is in helping women to change their mind-sets. People and Performance, in partnership with Pure Resourcing Solutions, run a Women’s Leadership Programme supporting women to progress to leadership roles. We work with teams who aspire to be high performing and with senior women to support them to progress. It’s a leadership programme first and a women’s programme second. We explore different leadership skills and self-awareness: What are my values? How do I influence what happens in my organisation? How can I handle change there and better understand people? I benefitted from this early on in my own career going through a similar programme. It woke me up to how things work in organisations and helped me progress. Within one year I became HR Director. I think it’s really important to offer it. A lot of SMEs have no in-house provision of this sort of thing. We’re now on our ninth programme and 80 women have been it through it already. Of those, 50% have gone on to broader or more senior roles, mostly in their current organisation.

“As well as women we also talk to a lot of boards and teams – often male dominated – and sometimes it’s their first time actually talking about the lack of women. We’re moving people’s mindset from ‘that’s how it is’ to challenging it. Men align themselves with young ambitious male employees and want to test them, using that sink or swim logic. They don’t want to throw young women in at the deep end and instead want to ‘look after’ them, deeming them not ready. Senior panels need to be challenged on these assessments and be told that they are often hindering career progression.

“In terms of balancing work and home life, I encourage people to consider job share or Talent partnerships as I like to call them. Women often do a full time job at home and at work, and that needs addressing. Through job shares, you find a talent shortage fix, where women can balance work and caregiving. If it’s the same person you need 40hrs a week and that’s all you’re open to hiring, they’re generally male. Talent Partnerships open the door to more women remaining in the talent pipeline. Individuals who understand each other can be a phenomenal team delivering a single role together.”

Michaela Margetts, Europe HR Director at Mindray

Michaela has been working in HR for over 20 years. She now works at Mindray as the HR Director for Europe.

“I joined People and Performance’s ‘Women in Leadership’ programme when I was struggling to juggle work and family life and wanted some one-to-one coaching. There were women of all different levels and roles on the programme, and yet everyone faced the same frustrations when it came to being a female in a leadership role. Some of their frustrations were also about balancing family life against perceptions of parenthood within organisations.

“It is challenging balancing family life around work. There’s a prejudice against parenting as you want to be there at plays and football matches but feel you have to always be present in work. We women are our own worst enemy when it comes to having a family. The same dilemma is faced by men but women tend to be more emotional about it and give ourselves a hard time. It’s about understanding your priorities and realising what’s acceptable. There needs to be an acceptance that family is the priority for everybody so that we are confidently able to make our own choices.

“My advice to businesses trying to encourage women up to senior level is to do more self-reflection.  We actively encourage women to progress but there are still very few women in seniority. We don’t actively discriminate but there are a lot of prejudices still, so it’s about figuring out how to be proactive to get past that. It could be something as simple as reassuring employees that they can rejoin post-maternity leave with the extra support they need. Men don’t always understand the support that women require, so ask them what they need back from the company when it comes to their return and how you can ease that.

“My advice to women looking to progress in their career is to establish a network of contacts that you can reach out to who have been through it. They can support you with whatever your circumstances are and the road you choose to take. I had a professional coach to have those conversations with, but it could just as easily be a friend, colleague or someone else you can trust; it’s important to share issues and come up with viable solutions, and not feel like you’re on your own.”

Christine Talbot, TV Broadcaster, Calendar news

Christine Talbot is a well-known ITV broadcaster, having been the lead presenter for Calendar since 2001. Starting her career as a print journalist, she then became an ‘on-the-road’ senior reporter and presenter on a features programme before joining the regional news programme.

“The media industry attracts a lot of women, so actually I feel that women are well represented at senior level, probably more than average. It is, however, an industry which can be challenging for anyone with families. You are often ‘on the road’ or ‘on call’, which means you need to work whenever it is needed, often having to leave your families at the drop of a hat. For example, on Boxing Day 2015 the whole team was needed to cover the horrendous floods that hit the region. You accept it as an expectation of the job though – it’s a sacrifice you have to make and you need to find ways to make it work. What balances this out is that most of the time, once your work is done for the day you can switch off. Every day is something new, which is not common across many other roles and industries.

“I feel lucky; I feel that in my career, I have been in the right place at the right time. I think it’s harder for younger reporters now – it is much more structured and there are more rigorous selection procedures in place. As I was building my career, there were less processes and I was in a position to make the most of the opportunities as they presented themselves.

“I work flexibly now; ITV have been very supportive in helping make my working life right for me. Following the birth of my daughter I went back to work part time, but there came a point when the TV team were keen for continuity on air, with a recognisable presenting team every day of the week. This would have been difficult for me, especially as I was a single mum at the time, but together we came up with a way that made it work for both of us. ITV understood it was important for my happiness and ultimately it worked out well all round. This is so important. I get the impression that other more male-dominated industries can be less flexible. For example I have a friend working in the financial industry who fought breast cancer and who did not receive the same level of support that I received for example when I was fighting the disease. There can be times when it seems very cut throat, but I get the sense that things are improving. Certainly, there is more recognition of mental well-being and employers being sensitive to that.

“My advice to others would be to make yourself valuable in the workplace. Do what is asked of you and most of all have a positive attitude. Then when you want something back, whether that is flexible working, time off for critical illness or to look after dependents, then you put yourself in the position where the company is more likely to look after you and accommodate your personal circumstances.”

 

Lynn Street, Sales & Marketing Manager of Midland Lead and a Director of Women in Roofing

Lynn works within the Roofing industry and started her career when her youngest child began school. She now works as Sales & Marketing Manager of Midland Lead and is a Director of Women in Roofing.

“I accidentally fell into working in the roofing sector when my youngest child started school.  My roofing career began as a Business Development Coordinator for Marley Building Materials, now Marley Eternit. After a couple of months I was promoted to Team Leader and appreciated the development opportunities that Marley Eternit offered. 

“An external opportunity arose to be Business Development Manager for Merchanting and Distribution, which I applied for.  This role would require me to spend many nights away from home on business. During the interview the Sales Director was very open with me and said that his only worry was that I had young children, which surprised me somewhat. My initial reply was “if I was a man would you be concerned about this?” What he didn’t realise is that as a mother you would manage home life before making any kind of commitment.  When this was explained to him, he apologised and offered me the position.

“During the early stages of my career I made sure that I didn’t speak too much about my family during work unless they came up as part of a general conversation. Not everyone, even other mothers are always interested in what your family are up to. I’ve also missed a lot of school events – sports days etc and arranged all childcare, where possible, without my employer knowing if there were difficulties. I felt as a working mum it was down to my family and I to manage our own home life.

“It may sound controversial but for me there’s a fine line between home and work life. When I’m at work, I’m at work. I need to focus and keep my home life separate. We have a responsibility to employers which we need to respect.  I understand that this is not always possible and I have been extremely fortunate that I have not had to deal with severe illness or problems that have meant that my employers have had to suffer too much.

“The roofing industry could be classed as ‘very male, and very pale’.  In the early days I remember walking into a conference and it was a room full of men with very few women in attendance; there was an overwhelming imbalance. It was difficult to break through the ‘old boy’ network and there is still a feeling that major decisions are made at male-dominant events. However, showing integrity and professionalism helps you to build and gain respect within any industry, whether male dominated or not.”

Women in Roofing (WinR) was set up in 2014 and aims to promote and support advancement and employment within the roofing industry by enabling both individuals and businesses to realise their full potential, create value and make a difference.

 

Jemma Barton, Director of Vantage People

Jemma is the Director of Vantage People, a company she set up herself which provides executive coaching and leadership development for senior leaders and business teams UK-wide.

“I work alongside businesses to improve leadership through coaching and leadership development programmes.  We focus on #newleadership - we recognise how leadership has evolved to support the current challenges organisations face. In this work, as well as 15 years in senior HR roles I have come across conflicting mindsets towards part time work and balancing family life with careers.

“There are early signs that the world of work is starting to become much more flexible, away from presenteeism and towards actual delivery and output. Yet in my HR experience, often managers responding to a flexible working request started by asking for reasons they could turn it down.  There is clearly still work to do to change the mindset of leaders and demonstrate that flexible working can and does improve productivity.

“There needs to be equality in access to flexible and part time working, but there’s pressure to take more discreet roles when part time. Earning potential falls, without a doubt, when women have children. There can also be a prejudice against asking for part time hours. I’ve even seen previous female management who have chosen to work full time criticise others, with the attitude of ‘I’ve done it why can’t they.’

“Parents must be able to play a meaningful role in their children’s lives and must be able to find a balance between work and home. In your 30s and 40s you need that level of flexibility. We need this as a society for the healthy development of our children. It shouldn’t just be women given that opportunity. There needs to be a wider acceptance around fathers taking those opportunities and taking shared parental leave, for them to share responsibility bringing up children. This shouldn’t just be for exec/white collar roles either, but for all workers.  

“The core of the issue lies in culture, both corporate and as a society. Until there is parity and acceptance for both men and women working part-time we won’t achieve equality of opportunity. I help companies to think how they can enable everyone – men included – to work more flexibly. Leadership teams need to set the example of flexible working, spending time with kids more. If a Chief Executive is taking time off to see their children, go to sports day others will model this behaviour.”

Conclusion

What is becoming more and more apparent is the need for social change in the workplace. More flexibility is required for family responsibilities – for both men and women – and until corporate boards stop seeing it as something that will inhibit the individual’s ability to perform, most women face a major obstacle in progression.

Women need support, to be informed of the options available to them and to be emboldened to reach for them. Whether through mentoring schemes or better general management, that encouragement can be the difference between reaching for C-Level and not. Employers who aren’t providing their female employees with the support they need to reach the top are missing out on the skills and leadership potential of a whole generation of women.

CSG are actively working with companies across multiple industries – particularly those which are traditionally male-dominated – to help reduce the gender gap. We support many of our clients with female-focussed hiring strategies and, additionally, offer an Employer Brand service which works alongside clients to market and promote them in a new light, with a focus on attracting certain demographics to work within their business.

If your company would benefit from any of our services, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at clients@csgtalent.com or +44 (0) 333 323 2000. Alternatively, you can read more about our specialist consultants and our value added services on our website: www.csgtalent.com

 

References:

Fawcett, Sex & Power 2018, 04.18

The Guardian, Gender pay gap figures reveal eight in 10 UK firms pay men more, 04.04.18

The Telegraph, Final gender pay gap figures revealed: 78pc of over 10,000 firms have a gap in favour of men, 05.04.18

The Guardian, gender pay gap: when does your company stop paying women in 2018?, 04.04.18

Catalyst, Catalyst Study Exposes How Gender-Based Stereotyping Sabotages Women in the Workplace

Catalyst, Damned or Doomed--Catalyst Study on Gender Stereotyping at Work Uncovers Double-Bind Dilemmas for Women

The Globe And Mail, Four tips for helping women climb the corporate ladder, 23.03.17