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Diversity … the debate goes on

I recently had the pleasure of being invited by Forward Ladies to a diversity forum hosted by RT. Hon Baroness Warsi at The House of Lords. Panel representatives included, The Institute of Directors, Microsoft, HSBC, Forward Ladies and IA Cubed – each of which shared their insights and experiences around the diversity agenda.

It got me thinking about my own personal experiences and how this related to some of the debate and insights being presented. As a mature female leader I have been around the block a couple of times and have been fortunate enough to never feel that my gender has inhibited my opportunities to get on and achieve what I wanted to in relation to my career. I found that hard work and discretionary effort – going the extra mile and saying “yes” more often than saying “no” has held me in good stead. I am reminded of a quote from Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook who said “Women don’t take enough risks. We’re not going to close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap”. This resonated with me – however, I do believe women can be equally as ambitious as men – but are less inclined to put themselves forward, often not realising the extraordinary talents and skills they have to offer – often thinking “I’m not good enough” or “it’s too risky – I might fail”. I see this time and time again with the fantastic women who participate in our Stride programme – our Female Leadership programme dedicated to women.

I am also reminded that research shows that the women who faced the biggest challenges in senior-level positions had often been star pupils at school. They’d earned excellent grades, won prizes and praise from their teachers and sought more graduate degrees. Those same behaviours that had been essential for academic success were possibly holding them back in the boardroom.

“Good student” behaviours – careful preparation, seeking outside knowledge, pleasing others and adapting to authority are also stereotypical “good girl” behaviours. Even as women achieve more success at work and in school – girls and women are still subtly encouraged to adhere to these behaviours by parents, teachers, toys, games and popular culture at large. Of course, boys are also taught these same behaviours at school. However, when boys open their history books or watch Harry Potter they see plenty of representations of male leaders who improvise, take risks, speak up, challenge authority and trust their instincts.

Girls don’t often get these counterbalancing messages. In fact, girls have their good student behaviours reinforced as feminine norms in the media and the stories they consume. In short, we are in danger of raising girls who strive hard to find the right answer and know how to get good grades – but who don’t know how to trust their own voices. The issues aren’t so much that women need to throw away their good student behaviours but we need to incorporate new complementary behaviours as we rise through the ranks at work.

We need to accept to learn to improvise, to take risks, to trust in our own abilities – to really appreciate all the talent and skills we have to offer and to challenge and influence authority – with confidence and to shift views and opinions where necessary.

I can at times feel disheartened that in the 21st Century we are still spending time and energy on debating gender disparity and then on the other I count my blessings that it is possible to recently have the sixth female appointed as a FTSE 100 CEO. (Recent announcement of GlaxoSmithKline’s appointment of Emma Walmsley as CEO). In 2011 we had 13% representation of FTSE100 female directors – today it is at 23%. On my birthday 6th February – representation of the People Act 1918 was passed which allowed 8.4 million to obtain the vote in the UK – and yet only last year women in Saudi Arabia were first allowed to vote. In some respects, we have come a long way and yet we still need to challenge those gender paradigms. To continue to challenge and debate gender disparity – we need to be the role models, to create environments that enable people to do their best – to create and build inclusive cultures and encourage the next generation of girls to bridge that ambition gap if they so wish too. Success is connected with action – successful people keep moving, they keep making mistakes and they don’t give up.

Brigit Egan September 2016

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