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  • Writer's pictureIan Ritchie

Are there too few women in our seats of power?

Ian Ritchie Business HQ / The Herald October 1st, 2023

Are women increasingly dissatisfied with their working lives? Here, Ian Ritchie studies a new book that seeks to answer why many are leaving firms to seek fulfilment elsewhere

POST-COVID and post-Brexit, the UK Government has become very concerned about the drastic skill shortages now affecting our economy, although it seems that young women are doing their best to fill this gap; today there are significantly more females than males studying a huge range of important subjects in our universities, including law, medicine, environmental sciences, psychology, agriculture/food, and education.

In the key business field of accountancy, 46% of the workforce are currently female and this proportion has been rising for many years; but before we celebrate too much, we might be dismayed to note that only 17% of females have risen to partner in the accountancy profession and, disgracefully, the gender pay gap under which they get remunerated has been reported at 21.5%.

So, is this poor level of career development typical in wider areas of UK business?

I’ve just been reading a new book which sheds a fresh light on this issue. It is called ‘Revolting Women: why midlife women are walking out and what to do about it’ by Lucy Ryan.

Lucy Ryan’s publication is a narrative based on her PhD study in which she interviewed a whole host of women who would normally be expected to have become senior executives but who have dropped out of the career development race for one reason or another – women between the age of 45 and retirement age, who have been by-passed for expected promotion, or have chosen to leave rather than continue to work within the organisations in which they have built their careers.

She refers to the latest edition of an annual report from McKinsey’s called ‘Women in the Workplace’ which reveals that we’re in the middle of a ‘Great Breakup.’ Women are demanding more from work, and they’re leaving their companies in unprecedented numbers to get it.

“For years, fewer women have risen through the ranks because of the ‘broken rung’ at the first step up to management. Now, companies are struggling to hold onto the relatively few women leaders they have. They are just as ambitious as men, but at many companies, they face headwinds that signal it will be harder to advance. They’re more likely to experience belittling microaggressions, such as having their judgment questioned or being mistaken for someone more junior. And finally, it’s increasingly important to women leaders that they work for companies that prioritize flexibility, employee well-being, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The result is that in the UK only eight women are currently employed as CEOs in the FTSE 100, while women only hold 14% of executive directorships and 38% of all directorships. In the EU, women make up almost half of all those employed (46.3%), yet among the largest publicly listed companies, only 20.2% of executives and 7.8% of CEOs are women.

The Fawcett Society’s Sex and Power 2022 report states, ‘overall, across 5,166 positions of power in society, we found that women make up just under a third – 32% – of the total. That means 919 women are missing from the top roles.’ According to this report, less than 2 in 5 posts in schools management go to women, 17% of social media CEOs and 22% of museum and gallery chairs are female; and 15% of sport governing bodies are led by a woman. Women across the pond fare no better with 14% of US financial institutions headed up by a woman and only 12% female leaders in the global energy sector.

And it is not that women don’t perform well in senior management positions; companies with a top quartile representation of women in executive committees (average age 45–55 years) perform significantly better (+47% return on equity and +55% average return on earnings) than companies with limited or no female representation.

Women between the age of 45 and retirement age may well have taken career breaks at key times to have children but will by now have considerable life experience of problem solving, planning, time management, and juggling various demands both in the workplace and in their home life – in short, by now they certainly know how to manage things.

However, the talent drain of the quitting females is prevalent across the workforce, leaking wisdom and energy out of corporations, and is acute for women over 50. These are the people who experience a collision of physical, emotional, and practical challenges at midlife – juggling menopause and older motherhood, together quite often with the care for, or loss of, ageing parents. This can lead them to re-evaluate what’s left of their careers.

However, there is considerable evidence from Lucy Ryan’s interviews that post-menopausal women have minds that are as sharp (or sharper) than in their younger years, and they are mostly ready for fresh challenges.It seems to be not uncommon for these senior women to be regularly by-passed for promotion, find themselves reporting to a much less experienced (male) manager and to be conscious of working increasingly in a ‘boys club’ where their opinions and decisions are not fully valued. Many then decide to opt-out of the ‘rat race’ and start their own businesses.

According to the Office for National Statistics, such ‘oldpreneurs’ make up a fifth of Britain’s new business owners, with a 67% increase in women over 55 opening business accounts in the last decade. Data from the Federation of Small Business demonstrates women-led businesses contribute a staggering £105 billion GVA (gross value added) to the UK economy.

But this productive profitability represents a huge loss for their former employers!

As the proportion of the working population, women between 50 and state pension age will increase to 34% by 2050 in the UK – that’s fully one third of our potentially productive senior workforce. We simply cannot allow all that skilled management experience to be lost.

Our government frequently decries the UK’s ‘productivity problem’ noting that our productivity as a nation trails competitive economies in Europe or North America, and this is usually blamed on lack of investment and poor quality of management. In this context we certainly can’t afford to dispense with so many of our skilled senior managers, women who have a huge experience of business.

So, what is to be done? One possible move would be to explicitly include reporting of gender balance within senior executive positions in a corporation as part of its Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) declaration. These days, companies take these reports seriously and such reporting would encourage them to regard this issue as an important one.

Companies should also actively strive to keep their senior female talent, and techniques to achieve this might include offering explicit midlife career reviews and counselling, showing openness to flexible working opportunities, providing access to medical advice on managing menopause or arranging care for elderly parents, and reviewing the prevailing attitudes of their senior management towards their older female colleagues.

Surely, these days, nobody wants their enterprise to be run by an old ‘boys club’.

Ryan, Lucy. Revolting Women: Why midlife women are walking out, and what to do about it. Practical Inspiration Publishing

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