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Women At Executive Level : The Real UK PLC Challenge

Posted on March 13, 2012 at 4:50 PM

Before we get carried away with celebrating our new 'culture of change' in the UK, a reminder. Women represent just 6.6% of executive roles in UK plc, and that increased figure reflects only two appointments in the past 15 months. There are, of course, a whole host of reasons behind this pathetic statistic.

The Female FTSE Report by the Cranfield School of Management highlights the fact that many plcs simply do not even identify, let alone monitor the progress, of women employed at various levels through the organisation. It also says that many are good at attracting women at entry level and developing and retaining them after maternty leave, but are spectacularly unsuccessful at promoting them to executive level.

Now Praesta, which coaches 450 top executives a year of whom 120 are senior women, is about to offer some interesting clues as to some of these reasons behind this failure. Organisations tend to sponsor senior men and women for coaching when they are stepping into a new leadership role - and that was true of 59% of women and 49% of men who came to Praesta. But while a further 40% of the senior men came because they were being given support to reach executive level, this was true for fewer than 10% of the women.

Mairi Eastwood, co-founder of Praesta and the partner who led the research, says: "Many CEOs are extremely frustrated that, despite numerous initiatives, they can't seem to persuade enough women to apply for senior roles. Our coaching holds some of the stories as to what is holding women back - and what CEOs need to do to overcome these blocks."

While women agree they need help on influencing skills and having more presence, they also want help with confidence and managing office politics says Praesta - issues which are not considered "major" in their organisations. 

Ms Eastwood says: "It is striking that more than half of senior women want help with their confidence. It's very late for this to be highlighted as an issues - and you wonder what is happening further down the organisation. We believe this is one of the keys to encouraging more women into senior roles."

If you scoff at this, you would be misguided. Because ultimately no matter how hard it may be sometimes to accept that an individual feels a certain way - the fact is they do - and it is only by accepting their feelings as real and 'legtimate' that you can start to interact better with them. The Praesta research strikes a chord for me based on my own conversations with women across cultures.

I recently helped a global executive search firm with a white paper. It involved reading many interviews with senior women at top levels in Eastern Europe on how they viewed their careers, and other women. Allmost all of them expressed great frustration at how women 'hesitate' in a very public way when offered a promotion, even when all those concerned know they can do the role. To me that's almost not 'lack of confidence' it's 'lack of skill in knowing how to appear confident.' 

The ones who 'hesitated' did so because they had young children, and their first thought (which they wrongly articulated at once) was 'what about the children?' In corporate-speak, you could argue they were just thinking aloud about the safeguarding of their most important investment - no crime, surely.

More seriously, we don't talk about 'lack of confidence' because in an age where we like to think of gender equality, it's a taboo subject. But 'confidence' that is particular to certain situations can be learnt, and taught/coached. It may well be that women need that 'confidence in the workplace' redefined - and recognising that would be a big step forward for all men and women concerned, with no shame in it.

Praesta's report 'Why are there so few women in senior executive roles?' is available free from Joanne Gavin from Monday March 19, 2012 on +44 207 9072450.

Categories: Corporate, Women, Coaching