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Eighty more years to achieve gender parity?

I graduated in law cum laude in my hometown in Italy. After a specialisation in European law, I gained a 6 months scholarship in an international law firm in Brussels. A few months into my job, I was invited to join one of the senior partners for a meeting with a client who had just arrived from Japan. There were four executives from a Japanese conglomerate which was in the top five clients for the firm. It was my first proper job and this represented a great opportunity for me. I was keen to make a big impression. I was the only woman in the room and the most junior associate in the firm. The whole set up was quite intimidating.

Everybody arrived and after the customary introductions, I sat next to the senior partner. As the meeting was about to start, the senior partner, a very skilled Scottish lawyer, looked at me pointing at the bar at the back of the huge mahogany boardroom and asked me to make him a cup of tea. I felt paralysed, as if the world had just stopped. Suddenly everybody in the room stopped talking. I looked at him with my best smile and told him he could make his own cup of tea. I looked at the Japanese clients and kept smiling sitting in my chair. It was like an out of body experience. The words came out of my mouth before I could process the consequences of my reaction. I felt a sharp pain in my stomach as the senior partner stared at me speechless and visibly outraged. Somebody else spoke and the meeting started. He never asked me to make a cup of tea again and I certainly made a big impression! I worked for the law firm for four years.

Nearly 25 years later, I am still the only woman at the Executive table. Nobody dares to ask me to make them a cup of tea, but it does feel like very little has changed. While female representation in the FTSE 100 has increased to 26% since the Lord Davies report in 2011 and the corporate world has reacted to the threat of European legislation imposing quotas in the boardroom, not much has changed at Executive level. Gender pay gap, occupational segregation, glass ceiling, gender biased working cultures are still very prominent in Britain’s and the global workplace. 

The work that the Lord Davies independent Steering Group has achieved is outstanding and has had a transformational impact on the composition and dynamics of corporate Britain. Regrettably, the focus on the Executive layer has been out of scope, except for stating some broad principles. The report recognises that addressing this issue is important, but labels it as a longer term and more complex challenge. I think the Steering Body missed a golden opportunity to issue a set of specific and robust recommendations and act as a catalyst for change. That would have been an epic and ever lasting legacy. 

My call is to set up an independent task force with a clear focus and mandate to achieving equal representation at Executive Committee level. This could be a subgroup of the soon to be appointed Steering Committee that will replace the Lord Davies chaired committee or an equally influential and effective group of people that applies some of the same rigour and scrutiny. The McKinsey Global Institute, Harvard, Goldman Sachs, the Global Economic Forum (to name a few) eloquently state the business case for diversity. A new study by the McKinsey Global Institute finds that global GDP could increase by up to $12 trillion during the next ten years if countries matched the rate of improvement of women’s participation in the workforce of the fastest-improving country in their region. In a “full potential” scenario in which women play an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025. There is significant economic value for nations and companies. Research and statistics from every corner of the world show that more gender equality brings more productivity, higher GDP, better share price and financial performance, better all- around performance, prosperity. Yet, the World Economic Forum in its Global Gender Gap Report 2014 estimates it will take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity in the workplace. 80 more years until companies and governments are equally led by men and women. That is four generations! 

So why is such a moral, social and economic challenge not being solved and how can progress be accelerated? I think that the reasons for lack of progress are complex, ingrained and centre around three areas: 1) advocacy and shaping attitudes; 2) capability building; and 3) laws, policies and regulations.

Advocacy and shaping attitudes

McKinsey research on diversity shows that fewer men (58%) than women (93%) even acknowledge the challenges faced by female employees at work to reach top management positions. When coupled with unconscious bias, no wonder we have seen little progress in achieving gender equality. Executives often blame the fact that female talent is scarce and that companies are competing to secure that talent. That is reasonably true, but it is not a valid reason to maintain the status quo. There are actions that boards, investors and their executives can take to tackle gender inequality. Progress in the following areas will help accelerate change: 


Boards and NOMCOs should review the company’s gender diversity plans and metrics on a regular basis and at least twice a year Investors should engage with CEOs to discuss gender diversity at Executive level and, in the absence of action from the company concerned, they should consider a vote against the Executive Directors or the adoption of the Annual Reports & Accounts

The broader Executive search community should look deeper and wider into the female talent pool. Companies should discontinue working with search firms and agencies that do not deliver 50/50 shortlists

Commitment, processes, culture

CEOs need to sponsor a Programme of Action and visibly support the advancement of women. Gender diversity should clearly be listed as a top ten strategic priority in companies’ Annual Reports and Accounts

CEOs should sponsor an internal network

Shortlists at all levels should include 50% female candidates

The recruitment process should be reviewed to ensure it promotes gender diversity, with job descriptions that focus less on technical experience and more on the relevant skills, underlying competencies and personal capabilities required

There needs to be clear guidance on what questions to ask during the recruitment process and who is on the interviewing panel (companies should ensure there is at least one senior woman on the panel at every stage in the recruiting process)

Companies should aim to achieve a 50-50 gender split in all teams right up to Executive level with well-defined equality metrics that become part of each leader’s performance metrics

Companies should introduce a broad range of flexible and work life balance including working from home options, upgraded paternal benefits, a concerted effort to neutralise the effects of maternity leave on career advancement and wage increases, return to work programmes, gender friendly induction. Managers at all levels need to attend an education programme about conscious and unconscious bias and inclusive leadership supplemented by an organization-wide message that bias is unacceptable. Bias is a corporate cancer that needs eradicating. Cultural barriers to women progression must be removed (think about making networking, social, business events gender neutral) 

Capability building

All companies should build a female talent pool, focussed on capability building and development of the talent pipeline, giving the identified women project work with/for a member of the Executive team, placing women on committees just below board level, pioneering the concept of board apprentices. Other capability building actions include sponsoring and mentoring programmes, role models, confidence enhancing events.

Research shows that often women need help with their confidence, self-assuredness and credibility. Often women need to be told they are valued, appreciated and need to be praised for their achievements. Managers need to appreciate that managing women and managing men in the workplace requires different approaches, like one would do when managing employees across different cultures. Companies and their executives need to recognise that career cycles, attitudes to money and status, communication and relationship styles are not gender neutral and require a degree of adaptation. 

According to new research, women are less likely to receive workplace training than men, and men are more likely than women to receive a pay rise following training. The study, recently published by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, found that women are usually given generic training, while companies pay for men to become better leaders. Companies need to review their training programmes participation and ensure that equal numbers of male and female employees are given the opportunity to attend in house and external programmes.

Laws, policies and regulations

The Equality Act contains some significant provisions that allow companies to engage in positive action specifically in relation to recruitment and promotion in employment and allow employers to recruit (or promote) a candidate who is of equal merit to another candidate, if the employer reasonably thinks the candidate:

  • has a protected characteristic that is underrepresented in the workforce; or
  • that people with that characteristic suffer a disadvantage connected to that characteristic.    

According to the above provisions, positive action can be used at any time in the recruitment or promotion process (including at shortlisting stage).  Is that enough? How much has changed since those provisions were introduced a few years ago? What actions would really help us achieve meaningful equality in the workplace? Quotas, female only short lists, preferential treatment, tough penalties for non-compliance? There are plenty of talented, capable, skilled women in the workplace. Nobody should get a job that they are not competent to do or are not qualified for and I do not advocate that should change. I would advocate though that legislation should allow female only short lists under certain defined circumstances, for example in companies or departments where women are underrepresented or if the employer reasonably thinks women suffer a disadvantage. 

Actresses, athletes and business women are speaking up against being paid less than their male counterparts. The phenomenon is widespread and needs condemning. The pay gap reporting requirements should bring transparency and motivate companies to take action to address this inequality. It is disheartening to read that Britain’s gender pay gap leaves women effectively working for free from 9 November until the end of the year and even more depressing that it would take 54 years to reach parity at current rates. Unless decisive action is taken now, it is not my generation that will see equality in place. It is not my younger sister’s, nor my teenager nieces’ generations. I do not have daughters, I have two young boys. I want them to enter a working world where there is balanced representation and 10 years (not 80!!) from now, I want them to say “what was mum going on about?” 

As Baroness Hale, Britain’s top female judge, recently said: “Excellence is important. But so is diversity of expertise background and experience. If we do not manage to achieve a more diverse [environment] we ought to be ashamed of ourselves”. It is time to change. It is time to fix this. Corporate Britain can lead the world in this area.Tea Colaianni has been Group HR Director at Merlin Entertainments plc since 2010. She has had an international career in HR and law working in leisure, hospitality and telecommunications. She sits on the board of Poundland Plc where she chairs the RemCo. Tea is a member of the Women1st Advisory Board and of the Prince’s Trust Women Leadership Group.

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