Limiting factors

Gail_Rebuck2.jpgGail Rebuck on the practical and cultural barriers facing women who contribute to UK business growth

I have been a woman in business since I entered the workforce in the mid-1970s – launching a publishing start-up in 1982 and then becoming CEO of one of the largest publishing companies in the UK in 1991. A post I held for 22 years until becoming Chair.

With each generation, I have seen women’s attitudes and aspirations towards fulfilling work transformed. 69% of women in work – the highest number since I joined the workforce. I also enjoy my millennial daughters’ utter intolerance of many of the compromises I’ve made in my life.

Despite these improvements, it is shocking that in the UK – where we champion ourselves as an exemplar of equality and support for business and enterprise – a significant gender pay gap remains. Almost two and a half million women want to work but currently don’t; and there are 10% fewer women in the workforce than men. For these women at least, little has changed since the 1970s.

These depressing statistics don’t fit easily with the fact that half of young women have a degree. What happens to them? So many are in low or middle skilled jobs, well below their qualifications. At school, girls outperform boys. So why is it that very few are on a pathway towards high growth STEM industries where many high profile jobs would await them?

One possible solution is to improve career preparation for women. By the time women are exposed to inspiring role models, they tend to have already decided on their subject choices and their ambitions are potentially curtailed.

When I speak to girls, I encounter immense enthusiasm and curiosity but I often feel like a visitor from Mars. There is little continuity, training or consistency in exposure to role models for the majority of the 3.7 million young women supposedly being prepared to aspire to a career and fulfil their potential in the workforce. This is particularly true for women interested in starting their own business – where the lack of sufficient entrepreneurial examples or training on how to ask for, or access, funding is acute.

If this alone were reviewed, we might well see an increase of one million women in our entrepreneur pool, equalizing the number of male start-ups. 

The financial and cultural case for increasing gender diversity at the top of the workforce has been made, won and is now beyond doubt. Yet a mere 8.6% of executive directors in our top company boards are women. I’m afraid few lessons can be learned from Norway, one of the first countries to introduce quotas of non-executive women on boards, as they have not seen a corresponding growth in executive women.

In the UK, women make up 26% of non-executives on company boards. An aim to increase this to 30% should be applauded but growth is unlikely without radical action on women’s executive careers. Is it a question of unconscious bias in companies and benevolent stereotyping? Or, as Sheryl Sandberg argues, that women are failing to ‘lean in’? Proper mentoring and sponsorship of women’s careers would help address this.

I certainly find increased anxiety in the brilliant young career women I mentor when they start a family. It’s as if many of them have subscribed to an ideal of perfect motherhood, blended with a perfect work performance – two impossible goals. 

We need to stop demonising working mothers and colluding in setting up impossible ideals for them to meet. Millennial women, for the most part, take a different attitude from my generation. We just got on with our careers if we were lucky enough to have one. They reject the compromise of working motherhood where all the responsibility rests on women, and demand a more equal approach with a partner along with much more flexibility from their employers.  Work-life balance is firmly on their agenda.

It is right that we applaud the contribution of women to business but we must also be aware of the warning signs of lack of progress and stagnation of unequal access to opportunity. We must be prepared to honestly debate any barriers, both practical and cultural, that prevent women from contributing fully to our future business growth. Otherwise, we will all be poorer for it.

Baroness Gail Rebuck is a Labour Peer and Chair of Penguin Random House UK. She tweets @gailrebuck

Published 21st January 2016

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