The new Feminocracy: what will this mean for women in the workplace?

A little bit of Penna insight and thinking.


13 Sep 2016

Executive Interim, feminocracy, women in the workplace

The new Feminocracy: what will this mean for women in the workplace?

I first wrote this article the weekend before what we thought would be a Tory leadership battle between Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom; the winner becoming the next Prime Minister. Two short months later and it’s already woefully out of date – at least from a factual perspective.

In this update I’m going to continue to use the political landscape as a way of asking questions of the workplace. It’s a useful angle; not least because we can ask the questions, what can we learn from what we see and then do better?

So, in eight weeks, what’s happened in the world of politics which bears relevance to my refreshed article? Angela Eagle bombed in her leadership bid amidst accusations that Labour takes a misogynistic approach to their leadership choices. Prime Minister May appointed a notably gender diverse Cabinet (Rudd, Truss, Patel, Leadsom etc). She also launched her premiership with a speech which will be remembered for its focus on righting the social injustices in the UK. Not before time, I hasten to add, given the Equality and Human Rights Commission report released on the 18th August shows such inequality has got worse rather than better in modern Britain.

Elsewhere, Ban Ki-moon has appealed that the next UN Secretary-General be a woman. And Hillary Clinton has started to gain some positive distance in the polls, so it’s increasingly likely that she’ll be President elect later in November (that said, I voted Remain, so don’t listen to me). With this possibility, we have, for the first time, the reality of women concurrently at the helm of the leading economic powers in the Western world. In fact, on a national level, even without Eagle in the mix for the Labour leadership, a strong percentage of the major political parties in the UK are being led by women for the first time in history. The potential of a ‘feminocracy’ should surely instil optimism in those working towards equality of opportunity for female talent in the world of work.

But is that blind optimism? If you take Barack Obama’s presidency and the progress made for race relations in the US during his term, you would argue yes it is. Milwaukee (it was Dallas when I originally wrote the article) being an example of just how fraught racial tension is in the US right now, the optimists (and even the realists) couldn’t have predicted just how wrong they would be when they thought a black president would improve the chances for black people in his own country.

In Merkel’s Germany, whilst a new quota stipulating women must represent 30% at board level was set in January this year, they are still lagging behind their counterparts in Norway, France, Netherlands and Italy, having managed to reach 22%. And the effects of the quota haven’t resulted in other gains for women in German corporate life; by the end of 2015 women held just 6% of management seats at the country’s top 200 companies - an increase of less than 1% from 2014. And who can forget, Margaret Thatcher; Prime Minister for 11 years, but far more famous for the Falklands War and privatisation than promoting fair opportunities for women in the workplace. In fact, her Cabinet only ever featured one other woman.

Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton have perhaps been the most vocal senior female politicians in playing an overt role in the female talent agenda (remember Albright's famous “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women” quote?).

It would seem they are, at best, role models, but certainly not game-changers.

Yes – there are a more role models now. For example Carolyn McCall, Chief Executive of Easyjet and winner of Britain’s Most Admired Leader in 2015, Carolyn Fairbairn as DG of the CBI, and Ruth Davidson leading the Tories in Scotland. More women are reaching senior positions both in politics and business. But the chasm between the small minority in leadership and powerful positions, and the vast majority still stuck at non-management and junior/middle management seems wider than ever. The recent Chartered Institute of Management/XpertHR report found women fill 73% of junior management positions but only a third of directors are female.

This statistic suggests the pipeline is there. For this reason, it’s critical we sponsor female talent in our businesses; I know that by promoting positive (and valid) messages about some of our most talented individuals whilst they’re not in the room is one of the most effective ways to compensate for the lack of confidence or open market opportunity that exist for them.

Interestingly, Theresa May has long been known as a sponsor of female talent; apparently Home Secretary Amber Rudd is one of her protégés. And as well promotion opportunities, having a sponsor also means you have someone who’s got your back in the first few months in post; someone who’s on your side ensuring you succeed, where others might see you fail. And as we know, particularly at a senior level, it’s knowing how to get things done in your new role, not your technical expertise, which can mean the difference between success and early failure. I bet May won’t let Rudd fail.

However, the fact remains, politicians, irrelevant of their race or gender, have a job to do which reaches far wider than improving the chances of women and minority groups in the workplace. Driven by world events and a big dose of wanting to remain popular with their parties and the mass electorate, politicians don’t have a great record on driving this agenda.

So, with this in mind, we can’t for one minute rely on the new wave of women in leadership to ensure the progress of female talent in the workplace. Businesses must themselves continue the momentum to ensure meritocracy and accessible career development for all.

And not just because it’s the right thing to do; following the Brexit decision, Britain more than ever needs the agility, innovation and commercial edge that’s proven to come from a diverse workforce. McKinsey’s 2015 report finds companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. And in the UK, they found a correlation between greater gender diversity on the senior-executive team and business performance; for every 10 percent increase in gender diversity, EBIT rose by 3.5 percent. Another piece of research from McKinsey has estimated the benefits of women fulfilling their economic potential and playing an identical role in the labour market to that of men to be as much as $28 trillion by 2025 – or 27% of global GDP. And Credit Suisse found that having even one woman on the board of a company starts to bring an improvement, with boardrooms where there is one female seeing an average return on equity of 14.1% since 2005, compared to 11.2% for all-male boards. I’m labouring the point…

Finally, given our need to remain competitive, we certainly can’t afford for our women with potential to have to leave the UK to fulfil it.

My plea to Heads of Talent across all sectors is not to abandon career development and talent management programmes as budgets tighten. But instead, continue to see this as our best way to ramp up the momentum we need to optimise organisational performance. I’m lucky enough to work with a number of visionary people leaders in my role at Penna, who instead of diverting budget until the Brexit gloom passes over, are continuing to invest in development programmes which empower new generations of career activists. There’s no silver bullet, but by combining a resourcing strategy which attracts the right talent (not just the usual suspects) plus a talent management strategy that does what it says on the tin, the equation will no doubt result in achieving their commercial objectives. Democracy in the UK has meant some decisions were left outside businesses’ control (most ‘business leaders’ encouraged a Remain vote), however, how they manage their talent is still very much in their control.

And our track record shows we certainly shouldn’t rely on our new global sisterhood of female leaders alone to ensure women in the workplace fulfil their potential.

Nicola Sullivan
Client Services Director
M: 07747 485029