The publication earlier this month of the latest report from Cranfield School of Management on the numbers of women on the boards of Britain’s biggest quoted companies makes dismal, if predictable, reading.
The study found that, while the percentage of female non-executive directors in the FTSE 100 was at an all-time high of 35.4%, female executive positions had flat-lined for a fourth consecutive year at 9.7%. Meanwhile, at the FTSE 250 the number of female executive directorships dropped from 38 to 30 between October 2017 and June 2018. Female directors were on average nearly two years younger than their male counterparts, but served for less time and had an average tenure of 3.7 years compared to 5.4 years for men.
On the topical issue of the Gender Pay Gap, the report found that the top 10 companies for the proportion of women on boards had a slightly lower average gender pay gap than the bottom 10. The two best companies were Diageo (55% women on boards, 4.1% gender pay gap) and GlaxoSmithKline (45% women on boards, 2.8% gender pay gap).
Little of this is likely to come as a surprise to Gillian Wilmot. A marketing specialist who early in her career launched the fashion retailer Next’s highly successful Directory mail order business and transformed Avon Cosmetics, she has held senior positions at several companies and now heads Board Mentoring, which works with executives to improve personal and corporate performance. Combining her own experience with insights from interviews with such prominent women as Cressida Dick, who last year became the first female head of the Metropolitan Police, the U.K.’s biggest police force; Inga Beale, the first female chief executive of the Lloyd’s of London insurance market; and Dido Harding, the former chief executive of the telecommunications company Talk Talk, Wilmot is currently writing a book with the working title How To Win In The Boys’ Club: A Mentor’s Guide To Leadership Success.
The intention is to help those “not from the standard group” navigate their way through the corporate world. Many of the hurdles that women have to overcome on their way to the top – the bias (conscious or unconscious) that assumes men are ready for promotions when women are not, societal pressures that mean that the arrival of children still often halts women’s career progression, the widely-accepted notion that women are much less likely than men to apply for promotions for which they may not be totally qualified, and the rest – are familiar. But Wilmot offers a couple more.
The first is the use of language. “Words matter – especially with referencing, which is key to progression,” she says. “So often the same behavior will be described differently for men and women with positive words for men and negative words for women, which are indicative of this bias.” For example, a male is strategic, while a female is opinionated; a male ambitious and a female pushy; a male impressive and a female formidable and a male passionate while a female will be regarded as emotional.
The second concerns attitudes to risk. Pointing out that female mountaineers are often criticized for taking risks if they have children while their male counterparts are not subjected to such disapproval, she says there is a range of factors – all to do with society rather than nature – that lead women to take a different approach to risk to their male counterparts. Insisting that she is not advocating that they “throw caution to the wind,” Wilmot nevertheless advocates that women take calculated risks on the basis that they are essential for moving forward. Stressing “it’s about outcomes” she says. “Blocked for promotion? Move to a different department or move company.”
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