Tracy White: Who runs the world? Girls*

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The recent UK elections saw a staggering 23 percent increase in female MPs, the largest increase in women MPs in any election since 1997. This means that Parliament has just about reached the 30 percent female representation for appointments to Boards (and what is Parliament if not just the “Board of Directors” for the UK??) mooted by the 2011 Davies Report.

That report highlighted that at 2011 rates it would take nearly 70 years to achieve gender balance in UK boardrooms. In addition, the report recommended that a good starting point would be a 25 percent minimum target for gender split and 30 percent of all appointments to Boards from 2011 should be women.

Of course, this raised all sorts of concerns around meritocracy and tokenism, and this din drowned out the rather obvious discussion: if we want meritocracy to be the method of choice for appointing executives (or MPs for that matter), then how do we get more women into a position where they can even be considered for those roles?

For this seemed to always be the issue. Women were often just not on the shortlist. We tended to be two or three management rungs down on the ladder, and so therefore not even a candidate. Why? The proliferation of popular media articles titled “How to achieve professional success” or similar would have us believe it’s just because women don’t demand what they deserve.

It is not that simple, obviously. But to ‘run the world’ women must stand up and be counted: in our communities, our businesses, as parents and partners, and at the highest levels in the land.  This year, our MPs have forged a dramatic path toward a future where women are represented fairly; not just the Tories, but across the board: three out of the five Labour leader candidates are women, and two of them have the requisite backing from their party so far.

There is still so much to achieve. Even with 26 percent of all candidates being women, 102 UK electorates had no female candidates. Women still only make up 23.5 percent of FTSE 100 Boards, and there are still 23 all-male boards in the FTSE 250 – granted this is a 96 percent reduction since 2011 but these companies are sharing that list with the likes of Ted Baker and Jimmy Choo!

Despite these positive steps from our Government, the larger question of meritocracy remains for female progression in business. How do we make it clear that, on merit, with the same skills, experience, education and achievements, women and men in the same role should be paid the same and be offered the same opportunities to progress their career?

There is much to be done by HR professionals in this space: pay equality; challenging bias in selection and talent identification; the creation of bespoke, personalised development programmes for all employees rather than mass ‘one size fits all’ training; and recognising the real impact maternity leave has on career progression and working closely with women who wish to have a family to address that. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

As professional women, to truly make progress in achieving gender equality in business, we must take some personal responsibility for educating the next generation and setting examples that can be followed. Take up opportunities to go and speak to schools about your job and what you do. Be honest about the salary expectations and also about what it costs to go to university. Mentor a young woman through her university life and into her first job. Demonstrate a firm but fair attitude when you consider pay reviews for your teams, regardless of gender. By taking the opportunity to educate, the message we send through these channels will shape the organisations of the future where gender equality will be the norm.

One way women are forging their own path to leadership, is in the world of entrepreneurship.  Women are launching start-ups at a rate of knots: in 2014 an astounding 1200 new businesses a day in the USA were female-led. These businesses attract significantly less investment than male-led companies, but win more work and have a lower failure rate. Leading a start-up automatically puts women at the forefront of business, creating networks and opportunities for other women as well.

But women say they perceive more barriers to starting a business than men, and there is more regulation than previously as well – for example, changed standards now regulating crowd-funding platforms, often a more successful avenue for entrepreneurs than traditional methods, may mean access to a wider variety of funding sources could be delayed.

Policy makers must take account not just of the new wave of women in business, but of how important it is to have women leading the way in business. With a stronger female voice in Parliament, including with an Employment and Small Business brief, one can only hope that the flavour of policy will continue develop in the right – and fair – direction.

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About Tracy White

Tracy White is Senior HR Manager at London law firm Bircham Dyson Bell LLP.

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