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Insights on money, career and trading

To reach the summit, women must take a survival pack

Posted on December 12, 2012 by Daniel at 1:14 am


Too many young businesswomen are ill-prepared to succeed, an equality pioneer tells Andrew Clark

It is a bleak image of budding female graduates embarking upon business careers. Too many are wet behind the ears, unprepared and doomed, according to a pioneer in workplace equality.

“They’re coming out with Louboutins and a bikini and saying they’re going to climb Kilimanjaro,” Heather Jackson, founder of the Women’s Business Forum, says of ambitious women in their early twenties. “We, as women, are not saying to them: have you got your survival pack? Are you prepared for altitude sickness?”

Ms Jackson, an outspoken Yorkshirewoman, heads the Two Percent Club, the women’s advocacy organisation that was named in 2009 to reflect the proportion of female bosses in FTSE 100 companies.

Progress has been modest. That 2 per cent has ticked up to 3 per cent, with easyJet, Burberry and Imperial Tobacco all headed by women. Yet on a broader basis, blue-chip British companies still suffer from a 94:6 ratio of male dominance in board positions.

At some businesses, structural barriers such as inflexible hours and misogyny prevail. But at many others — particularly among multinationals — attitudes have changed.

It is time, Ms Jackson says, to stop laying the blame solely at the feet of men and corporate policies. The “pipeline” is broken, she says. Female talent is leaking out of the system at middle-management level, rather than rising the extra few yards to the top. “We’ve got six out of ten women entering at graduate level, and then we’ve only got 6 per cent of women in executive positions,” she says. “What’s even more frightening is that the number of females in executive roles has dropped since 2009.”

A study by Ms Jackson’s umbrella organisation, An Inspirational Journey, asked 500 women in middle management what they believed was the biggest factor holding back their careers.

“We put in there flexible working, we put more supportive partners — all the things that companies have been told to sort out in order to sort the problem,” she says. “But 92 per cent of respondents put ‘confidence and self-belief’.”

Ms Jackson reckons that between the ages of 24 and 35, many women lose confidence in themselves, hit by an assortment of obstacles, married life and parenthood, perhaps, or, more broadly, a paucity of female role models.

“We’re not preparing them,” she says. “Is it any shock that women leave the pipeline when they’re hit by obstacles they’re not prepared for?”

Ms Jackson, 44, who has two children, rejects suggestions that motherhood prompts many women to take their feet off the career pedal. She points out that four out of ten career women do not have children, and still often find themselves held back.

“You can have children and still have your brain, still have your intelligence and still have your life. Children aren’t a dilapidating part of your career if you don’t want them to be,” she says.

A former marketing entrepreneur from Holmfirth, Ms Jackson became involved in gender equality out of loyalty to her home county.

It was in Yorkshire in 2009 that Sir Mervyn King, the the Bank of England Governor, admitted that the economy was going to shrink, telling a Leeds business audience: “It now seems likely that the UK economy is entering a recession.” A study had recently been published saying that Yorkshire had 16 per cent fewer women in its boardrooms than the rest of the country, and a McKinsey report, Women Matters, had quantified the boost in profit to be gained from diversity. Ms Jackson wondered what could be done to help the county to lead Britain towards recovery.

“I realised then that if we didn’t do something about getting more women on boards in Yorkshire, we’d be struggling to drive the economy forward,” she says. “I remortgaged my house and decided to build the country’s first women’s business forum.”

The male dominance of British business has moved steadily up the political agenda: in 2011, at the request of the coalition, Lord Davies of Abersoch set a target of increasing female representation on Britain’s boards to 25 per cent by 2015.

The Government has stopped short of emulating countries such as Norway by imposing gender quotas on companies, although Lord Davies has warned of consequences if progress is slow. He recently said: “If we don’t fix some of these issues like diversity in business, Britain is going to wake up in 15 years’ time with a high unemployment rate, a very disaffected youth and serious social problems.”

Several big corporations are singled out for praise: Ms Jackson names Procter & Gamble, Vodafone, BAE Systems and Wm Morrison as employers with progressive policies.

Diversity makes a financial difference. Research by Catalyst, an American lobbying group, found that companies with more women on their boards delivered 53 per cent more in terms of return on equity.

Ms Jackson rejects generalisations about women taming male recklessness, but says a balance of different perspectives in an organisation is healthy.

“Harriet Harman once said that if Lehman sisters, rather than Lehman Brothers, had run the banks, we wouldn’t be in this problem,” she recalls. “Absolute rubbish. If Lehman sisters and brothers had worked together, possibly we wouldn’t be in this crisis. Women alone aren’t the answer. Women and men working together are.”

Ms Jackson’s organisation, which has funding from RBS, comprises several elements. The Women’s Business Forum, an annual conference, brings together 600 delegates to mull over female talent and performance.

A training network called The Pearls offers seminars and support for 980 women rising through middle management. The Two Percent Club, meanwhile, comprises 500 female high-flyers who advocate for boardroom diversity and act as mentors for up-and-coming women. Already established in the North of England, it is scheduled to launch in London this week.

It’s one thing, when talking about women having it all, to hold up dynamic examples such as Nicola Horlick, the self-styled “superwoman” fund manager and mother of six. But what about those who take a significant break from work after having children? Does a year’s maternity leave risk compromising a career?

Ms Jackson’s advice is that even when on parental leave, ambitious women should keep in close touch with work. “When you say take a year out, are you saying never to speak to contacts and work colleagues over that period? I would absolutely say no in that case,” she says. “But can a woman take a year out and keep her contacts, keep her skills going, keep her connectivity to work going? Yes.”

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