Slowly but surely the glass ceiling is cracking. Women everywhere are achieving great things, and securing leadership positions in some of the biggest companies in the world. Female CEOs, Presidents, and public figures are becoming a norm on the world stage.
Inspirational women have made great strides, but their success has only gone so far. Women in senior positions can achieve great things as individuals, but don’t always apply themselves to creating practical opportunities for women in junior positions. To solve this we need to innovate, and think about how we can build bridges so that the success of one woman becomes the success of many.
In my professional capacity, as Chair of Hinduja Bank Switzerland, I have too often found that despite the well-meaning talk of empowerment, the financial industry remains unequal. Female CEOs and business leaders continue to stick out in rooms full of men. If you lined up all of the CEOs of the fortune 500 companies in the US, you would find only 33 women, just 6.8%. While this is more than the 24 in 2018, it is still a startlingly small number.
To improve the picture at the top, men and women have to get serious about empowering female employees to see themselves as executives. This starts right at the beginning.
Imagine a young woman joining a company for the first time. Her first obstacle would be the interview stage.
While interviews can often feel like interrogations, it is the responsibility of companies everywhere to make potential new hires feel comfortable, and see that the organisation is open to people like them. This is why it is so important, even at the start of an employee’s journey into a company, they are met by men and women.
Making sure the decision-makers behind new hires are a combination of genders is a surefire way to eliminate bias. Too often young women attend rounds of interviews without seeing a female face.
This can be both overly intimidating, and send the message that the company is not a friendly environment. On the other side, if the ultimate decisions are made by men, that decision is statistically more likely to result in the hiring of another man. Women need women in the interview room, and female leaders, who are in a position to effect this should start doing so.
Once women are in an organization, the lack of female leaders can disheartening. Despite the strides made in recent years, my own industry remains dominated by men. Whether at board meetings or conferences, it can be rare to see more than a dozen women in attendance. The few women in positions of power can seem hidden from view. This is why female leaders need to make themselves more visible, both through speeches, participation in conferences both all-female and mixed, and most importantly, by mentoring.
The practice of female mentorship is growing. Many senior leaders in major companies now work to identify promising junior colleagues, and show them – through advice, guidance, and support – the paths open to them if they wish to pursue management. Too often the lack of female leaders sends a message to younger employees that the company is uninterested or even averse to letting female voices be heard in the board room. By proactively working with more junior employees and showing them, in practical terms, that this isn’t the case, the company can take a step towards a more equal leadership team.
Yet even as women progress through the company, obstacles to success continue to crop up.
Childcare and maternity leave has remained one of the biggest issues facing women in the workplace for the past few decades. Even today, companies too often force women into choosing between having children and focusing on their career, putting the onus on women to make an impossible decision. Just as a lack of female leaders sends a message, so does the absence of a progressive and supportive childcare policy. The days of pitting a woman’s family life against her career should be consigned to history.
Even when strong maternity policies are instituted, it’s essential that a culture of support goes with them. It is not enough for women to be supported financially, companies have to ensure women who have taken maternity leave aren’t left at a disadvantage compared to their male colleagues.
Firms have to address this by creating specific routes for promotion and training, to ensuring that women do not suffer from a lack of earnings, or lose out because they’ve spent time away from ongoing projects.
These are not new solutions, they are tried and tested in organisations throughout the world – including at Hinduja Bank Switzerland. But due to institutional apathy, they are often implemented poorly, or haphazardly. If we are to carry the progress made by women in the last decade through the 2020s, it will not be about coming up with new solutions but harnessing the power of the women who have succeeded and implementing what works. If we do that, then the longstanding professional gap between men and women might finally be bridged. Being dynamic is the best destiny for women.