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Gender equality at leadership level: why it matters and how to achieve it

Over the past few months, we’ve spoken to a number of women in senior leadership roles in Wales, who have given us some revealing insights into how they reached their current positions.

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day and National Careers Week, we share their lessons for both aspiring leaders and Welsh organisations with ambitions to achieve better gender equality at leadership level.

Why does it matter?

There is overwhelming evidence showing that greater diversity, whether it be around gender, ethnicity or skills, improves business performance. McKinsey and Co’s latest report found companies with the most gender diverse executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform their competitors. Yet the proportion of businesses with no women in senior leadership positions rose to 34% last year according to Grant Thornton.

Former Director in Wales for British Gas, Lynda Campbell, says: “Every organisation should encourage different thinking and different viewpoints and ideas to get the very best outcome. That’s why a diverse board should be welcome.”

Having led the company to more than 28 brand enhancing industry awards and increasing customer satisfaction by over 400%, Lynda sets a great example of the impact women can have when their careers progress to senior level.

How can you achieve it?

Actively encourage female applicants

When recruiting, make sure the offer will appeal to both men and women and be explicit about the fact you welcome diversity at leadership level.

While few would disagree that gender balance is important, the choice of talent can often be limited and, as Carys Hughes, Group Chief Financial Officer for Creditsafe, says: “It’s got to be about getting the best person for the role; I would never want to be a position where I’m just there because I’m a woman.”

By deliberately seeking to attract a wider talent pool, you’ll ensure you have a range of candidates that are both skilled and diverse.

Make equality part of your culture

Being direct about your values and making them part of your onboarding and training programme will give you a good foundation on which to build greater gender equality.

A positive experience at entry level can make all the difference, as Hannah Heath, Finance Director for JoJo Maman Bébé explains: “PwC had a good (gender) split and we were given the same opportunities regardless of gender. HBOS was also very diverse. I never felt there was a limit to what I could achieve.”

Attitudes towards working practices are directly linked to this. Amanda Wilkinson, Director of Universities Wales, explains: “Seniority often equates to giving your employer every hour under the sun, but if both partners are working it can be challenging to reach that pinnacle.”

Review your salaries and processes

Regularly looking at whether your male and female employees are receiving fair pay and equal opportunities to progress is important.

Lynda talks of one of her earlier managers who “recognised something in me and encouraged me to push a bit higher.” Giving women a chance is often all it takes to help them reach the top.

Making sure men and women are interviewed fairly is also vital. Carys says: “I’ve been questioned during interviews about my plans for marriage and children – along with my age. Women might not be able to give as much time for practical reasons but they’ve got a lot to give.”

Be a role model

Employers can be invaluable in building confidence and self-belief, two common barriers for women in the workplace. Lynda Campbell cites another leader who had a huge influence on taking her career to the next level: “He was so strategic, so creative, quite inspirational. He really ‘walked the talk’ and that stood out to me. Chris would be more supportive if you tried and failed rather than say you couldn’t try at all.”

Providing coaching and mentorship opportunities for employees can also give women the encouragement they need to progress to the next level.

Accommodate flexible working

The cost and availability of childcare can be a huge barrier to gender equality. Lynda says: “When I was working my way up in British Gas I was juggling work with caring for a young child and running a household. Many women struggle to make these three roles work.”

Gender bias also affects men, who are increasingly seeking a better work-life balance, one in which they can be more involved in raising their children.

Shifting cultural attitudes is an important step in overcoming this – as is providing more flexible part-time, remote working and extra leave.

By removing the obstacles childcare and other caring responsibilities present, organisations can build a more progressive and diverse leadership team.

What about aspiring female leaders?

As well as showing how employers can support women in reaching the top, the stories we’ve shared show how powerful women can be in the face of the obstacles they face.

Here are three lessons for aspiring female leaders:

Believe you can

Self-belief is a common ingredient for many successful women we speak to and it’s something we also found vital when setting up Sitka Recruitment. If you don’t believe you can do it, no one else will.

Hannah, who was promoted to Director before she turned 30, says: “I had to fight for my role here; there was a perception I was too young, but I had already proven I was capable of the job and managed to convince the board I was ready.” She advises women to “Fight for what you really believe in and what you want; choose your battles, stand your ground and really believe in yourself…If you believe in yourself and believe that something is possible, it is.”

Be true to yourself

Staying true to our values and approach is vital to us as Directors of Sitka Recruitment and it’s a common thread in our Q&As with women leaders too.  Carys says: “Don’t become something you’re not just to get ahead. There’s a perception that you need to take on ‘male’ traits to reach the top, that a boy is ‘confident and headstrong’ whereas a girl is ‘bossy’, but just celebrate your positives and trust that that will take you through.”

Lynda echoes this: “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to prove yourself … and take on an authoritarian style or try to compete with the men. Women are succeeding in leadership because they are passionate, driven and genuinely care about helping other people develop and succeed.”

Don’t limit yourself

Lynda advises those women aspiring to leadership not to cap their goals: “Don’t limit your ambition by just thinking of the next step. If you aim the highest you can possibly aim, you won’t reach that point – but you won’t be far off.”

With tenacity, self-belief and the right support, women can achieve great success at senior leadership level.

Gender equality has huge benefits for all of us, and the organisations who get it right sooner rather than later will be the ones who reap the benefits.

If you need guidance on attracting more job applications from women and finding top female talent, please get in touch.

To find out how we can work with you, please drop us a line