The unspoken link between women and winning
Angela Ahrendts quitting her role as Burberry chief executive earlier last month prompted collective groans.
Twitter went into a tizzy with the news being described as “sad”, “disappointing” and “shocking”.
The day was written off as a loss in the toxic gender equality debate, as Ahrendts’ departure leaves only two women running FTSE100 companies: Carolyn McCall at easyJet and Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco.
But what’s wrong with someone moving to head up the retail division of Apple, one of the world’s coolest companies, as Ahrendts will?
Had it been an Angelo Ahrendts making the move, would the news get the same reaction?
Yet the issue of gender balance in the boardroom isn’t just about the boardroom, but other business activity too. And this issue isn’t just about ticking diversity boxes, or moral or social obligations, either. This is about well rehearsed commercial savvy and hard business benefits. For example, if you’re going into pitches with all-male teams (a frequent sight) you could be missing business and growth opportunities.
How a lack of gender balance can be commercially damaging
The world of work still has testosterone-fuelled sectors where men are the face of the business pitching to clients.
If your company is one of them, then chances are you’re losing out.
Yvonne Smyth, Director at Hays, the recruiting experts, thinks that including more women in not just pitching but all sales teams is essential.
“Businesses are increasing acknowledging the fact that having a male-only pitching team is commercially backward.
“They understand that it’s important to have diverse opinion for not only preparing a pitch but also a truly representative the face of your company to clients. With a balanced sales team you’re able to put a richer product on the table at point of sale.”
So what hope is there for male-dominated sectors?
Think of male-dominated sectors and automobile is one of the first to spring to mind. After all, how often have you seen female car salespersons in showrooms or girls manoeuvring steering wheels in car adverts?
But rules of the games are fast-changing.
Take Shropshire-based automobile company Greenhous. The company has an all-female sales floor at its Toyota showroom in Shrewsbury.
Richard Potts, franchise director at Greenhous, says: “The female sales team happened by chance but is a great indication that the times are changing in a very male-dominated industry.”
Deanna Christian, the new sales manager of the company, feels that knowing the brand inside out has given her the confidence to run the car showroom: “It is great that we have an all-female sales team and it proves that more women are keen to enter this sector of business than ever before.
“The automotive industry can be seen as a traditional one that is majority male, but things are clearly changing in this respect.”
As it stands, only 1% of women in the UK are working in skilled trades compared to a fifth of young men, according to research by Trade Union Congress’ recent study.
The study also found that three times as many young women are employed in low-paid, low-skilled jobs – such as office and hotel cleaning – than there were 20 years ago.
Sectors that are typically high-earning aren’t immune to the problem of gender imbalance either.
Insurance is a case in point – women are rarely sighted, particularly at senior level.
Katie Small, board director at insurance broker R K Harrison, thinks the reason her sector is turning a corner too as businesses understand the importance of gender-balanced teams.
“Contrary to popular belief, the insurance sector is waking up to women. We’re in a people’s business where people buy from people. Clients are looking for people who understand their needs and requirements and will be able to facilitate them.
“If you have 10 people of the same sex and the same background, you’re only going to get one dynamic. In order to win clients, you need to be looking into different dimensions which can come only by having a diverse pool of talent.”
Small admits that the lack of females in the sector in part boils down to career aspirations.
“There are lot of women at entry level but they don’t come back after maternity leave. So the number of women in financial services companies boils down to aspirations and breaking old stereotypes of women taking care of the house and kids.”
Sharron Gunn is executive director, Commercial, at ICAEW. She says that the number of women and men coming into finance and accounting roles at entry level is now more 50/50, but there is a lack of women in senior roles because historically the industry has been far more male-dominated.
“All the research I’ve read about this really points to the fact that mixed-gender teams yield high performance and output,” she says. “But even when you might have a 50/50 [gender] split at the bottom end, you obviously get more women taking career breaks in their late 20s and early 30s, so again the imbalance comes in.”
Gunn says those women who do return to work often suffer from a lack of confidence that is steeped in worry that five years or so outside the workplace has left them out of touch.
From her perspective, ICAEW is running programmes to try to redress the imbalance at multiple stages of the talent pipeline: from talking to women in schools and universities to explain that you can do any subject to become an accountant and that it’s a viable career, through to support programmes for parents returning to work.
“It’s about making sure you’re not missing the talent pool,” she says.
Why companies should expect diversity from their supply chain
Smyth of Hays thinks that in order to shift the needle on gender balance, companies need to start actively exerting influence over their supply chain.
“It is now common and expected good practice that if you are a purchaser of services and genuinely believe that gender diversity is a good thing, you have a moral and commercial obligation to exert that influence down your supply chain.
“One of Britain’s biggest TV channels has EDI (equality diversity and inclusion) has a core pillar of its charter. It therefore ensures that companies in its own supply chain follow suit wherever possible, if they don’t they lose business.”
Helena Morrissey CBE is CEO, Newton Investment Management and founder of The 30% Club, an initiative to get 30% women into Britain’s boardrooms by 2015. She thinks investors can influence diversity in the companies they hold stakes in.
She wrote in LondonlovesBusiness.com’s print publication Securing Britain’s Talent:“Several of the member firms of the investor group are now ready to step up the pressure by making it clear they’ll abstain or vote against the election of the chair of the nominations committee (or the board chairman) if there’s not more action to achieve better balance.
“We see this as a key part of developing modern sustainable businesses of the future and therefore ones that deliver good returns for shareholders.”
The need for female role models
There is also a need for women to rise to the challenge and become role models who can exert opinion and encourage and nurture others.
Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is a good example of that. When she stepped down from the board of Starbucks, she recommended 28-year-old female tech entrepreneur Clara Shih to replace her.
Shih is co-founder of Hearsay Social, a software company that helps big brands use social media to tap customers. She is mentored by Sandberg and gets career advice from her.
Shih said in a recent interview with LondonlovesBusiness.com: “Sheryl’s friendship, mentorship, and helpful insights have h
elped me realise it is perfectly normal to have doubts and insecurities, but we truly grow as leaders when we learn to overcome them and inspire our people to overcome their fears as well.”
Be it women in the boardroom or women in the sales pitching team, gender inequality can be nipped in the bud only if women take up more roles in all departments. Simply appointing a female non-executive director isn’t enough.
Here’s hoping that sometime soon, when someone like Angela Ahrendts gets a new job, we will be able to congratulate them without the gender issue making headlines.
London Loves Talent is brought to you in partnership with Hays
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