Taking a pickaxe to the glass ceiling

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We all need to alter our mindsets and take action if opportunities for women in businesses are going to improve, argues Donna O'Neill

I identified as a feminist from an early age and have always been proud to label myself as such. Now more than ever, I feel strongly that organisations ought to do more to assist their talented females. The pace of change in terms of achieving gender diversity at the top remains glacial, and so it is vital that both businesses and legislative bodies consider ways to inject some much-needed momentum.

In terms of new legislation, the proposed EU directive for women on company boards remains in draft form. Despite reassurances that agreement among member states is possible, the official press release from the Council of the European Union’s meeting in December 2014 revealed that a general approach could not be reached. And with flexibility clauses now being tabled to make quantitative objectives more palatable, it is safe to say that the pace of negotiations looks set to remain protracted.

Despite this setback, figures released by BoardWatch a couple of weeks ago appeared on the surface to reflect positive change. The initial target set by the Davies Report – to have 25 per cent women on FTSE 100 boards by 2015 – looks certain to be achieved by the end of this year. However, most of this figure is made up by the 29.8 per cent of women who are non-executive directors, with some women simultaneously holding multiple positions.

While the share of women
at executive level has increased somewhat, it is still at an embarrassing 9.6 per cent.
These figures illustrate that, in terms of holding the most senior positions, we have a long way to go to reassure young females that the ‘glass ceiling’ can be broken.

Level playing field

My firm is making distinct efforts to engage with this issue via its More Women initiatives.
The most recent of these was hosting ‘Oxford-style’ debates for which the motion was: ‘All any organisation can and should do to achieve a gender balanced board is ensure there is a level playing field. After that, it is for women to do what they can (for example securing mentors, finding the right life partner and “leaning in”).’

Those speaking against the motion argued that, despite the EU Equal Treatment Directive of 1976, there is still much to be done to eradicate the unfair advantage given to men in business. And when there are twice as many men by the
name of John leading FTSE 100 companies as there are women (of any name), it’s no surprise that young girls assume there are fewer opportunities for them at the top.

The speakers suggested that creating a genuine ‘level playing field’ is easier said than done, and without access for young women to successful female role models, the task becomes impossible.

Embracing flexible working patterns, for women and men, was said to be a ‘no-brainer’ in business, if only for the fact that those in senior positions working a four-day week put in more hours than for what they were remunerated.

Both speakers against the motion contended that the glaring imbalance between men and women at the top cannot be attributed to women, and encouraging them to ‘lean in’
was downright offensive.

Quotas or targets?

Arguments for the motion opened with a contention that,
if there is a glass ceiling, it has ‘about 18 million cracks in it’, a quote from Hillary Clinton. This rhetoric held no sway with me. When in 2015 only 104 of the 535 seats in the US Congress are held by women, there is evidently more work to be done. This is also true of the legal profession, with the Law Society for England and Wales revealing that across all areas of private practice, the gender pay gap has actually widened to an average of
30 per cent.

The final speaker for the motion pointed out that the introduction of quotas in Scandinavian countries had not been nearly as successful as originally hoped, with similar increases in the amount of CEOs having been achieved in countries with and without quotas.

I’m inclined to agree with the view that targets as opposed to quotas are preferable. Persuading boards to promote talented females, as opposed to compelling them to hire for the sake of a quota, is unquestionably more desirable. However, the business community should recognise that quotas will become a necessary resort if change is not affected.

Boards with more women on them dramatically outperform those with fewer, have fewer governance issues, and better reflect the diversity of their customers. So, rewarding business leaders for drawing fully from the talent pool, even for economic value alone, strikes me as a very savvy approach.

Reassuringly, the motion was defeated, but with both sides of the house arguing for the same outcome. More action is needed to achieve lasting equality and that for this to occur, it is imperative that a shift in the mindset of both men and
women takes place.

And so, those who care must take a pickaxe to the supposed
‘18 million cracks’ – because, as Hillary Clinton eloquently put it, ‘We need to make equal pay and equal opportunity for women and girls a reality so women’s rights are human rights once and for all.’ SJ

Donna O'Neill is a trainee solicitor at Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co

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