Want a sobering thought as you get into the office today? As it stands, 73% of entry-level positions in the UK workplace are filled by women, yet only 34% of managers, directors and senior officials are female. These worrying statistics have led us to one conclusion. We’re calling it: women in middle management are officially M.I.A.
These are the findings of The Pipeline Effect, the latest publication from the Women’s Business Council. More than a report, it is, in fact, a practical toolkit for workplaces, which aims to encourage gender parity in middle management. According to their research, the UK needs 1.9 million managers by 2024 and, in order to achieve equality, 1.5m of those new managers need to be women. With so many lost along the way, that benchmark is looking fairly unfeasible.
“We became particularly interested in this sticky middle,” says the toolkit’s co-author, Mars Food global president and co-owner of the Women’s Business Council’s Getting On Group, Fiona Dawson. “There’s a lot of focus and progress on executive board level but when you look at the middle management level, it’s really obvious where the bottleneck is. If you don’t get to the middle, you don’t get to the top.”
So, what’s causing this Bermuda Triangle for women in the UK workplace? Despite admirable progress in regulation and legislation (much of which was spearheaded by the Women’s Business Council itself), we still lag behind the US, Canada, Australia, France and Sweden in numbers of female managers – middle or otherwise. It seems we Brits may simply be shying away from the opportunities for equality presented to us.
“We suddenly realised from speaking to women and researching it; it was permission,” says Dawson. “So many women still felt that even though there was a policy about working from home or taking time off during term time, that it was frowned upon, and that people would think they were skiving off. They were scared about asking.”
Besides the conviction to act on our rights, we need a workplace culture that encourages this, that makes asking these questions acceptable. It’s why poor line managers are, according to the toolkit, one of the key causes of this dearth of female progression.
In a recent Opportunity Now report entitled Project 28-40, when asked what one thing organisations could do to improve career development opportunities, 22% of women said a fair and transparent promotion and appraisal process, and a further 22% said an improved professional development programme. The person meant to be guiding and developing these – your line manager – is too often someone with no real investment in your personal growth.
“We found women were looking much more for career conversations, which would ideally take place on a quarterly basis throughout the year and not just at the end of the year,” Dawson reveals. “But a lot of people fall into the role of line manager without the proper training. They see it as something that they have to do as opposed to something that they want to do.”
The hope is that training line managers to take real interest in their workers' ambitions and needs will ultimately foster an environment in which women can succeed. The management consultancy firm Accenture embraced this idea, training its line managers and overhauling its performance reviews, replacing them with authentic and frequent ‘career conversations’. They almost immediately saw a marked improvement in office culture, with “more fluid, ongoing dialogue in real time” according to Tony Horan, the company’s head of human capital and diversity.
Shifting how we work – focusing on what needs to be done and the rigidities of when and where – could introduce the greatest leveller into the workplace: flexible working, which will make it easier for working mothers to do their jobs. Flexible working is, of course, becoming increasingly popular, and its benefits are not just for women. Research shows that companies which embrace flexible working see a 76% improvement in staff retention. It would certainly go some way towards rescuing female employees from dropping out of the missing middle.
Returning to work following maternity leave is when this flexibility is most commonly sought after. Though there are impressive leaps forward in this regard – the government’s announcement last month of ‘Returner Programmes’, companies such as Barclays offering applauded Back To Work schemes, and the Women’s Business Council’s own action group encouraging equal parenting, Men As Change Agents – there is still much work to be done. A recent survey revealed that nearly one in five working mothers has been forced to leave a job after being denied flexible working.
Beyond the barricades set up by the workplace itself, there is still a greater ideological obstacle to overcome. The stigma attached to flexible working, or to taking a career break, is proving insurmountable for so many of us. The Pipeline Effect reveals that most women polled thought it would be an impediment to their career if they took time off, and two-thirds of women surveyed by Opportunity Now for Project 28-40 said that “work must be a priority if they wanted to advance their careers.”
Women – stereotypically – are more likely to think around an issue to a greater degree than their male counterparts. It’s what makes us better at risk management and planning contingencies, but this introspection is backfiring on us. We are becoming our own worst enemies, assessing our progression and self-selecting out of jobs we feel we cannot accomplish alongside families, or even alongside a more rounded existence. As Dawson observes: “Women are more pragmatic. They will think of every reason not to do something.”
It’s the Superwoman Effect – an idea, born from Imposter Syndrome and propagated by the media, that women must be so much more than a man to fill the same role; that we must have it all, do it all and juggle it all. More than half of the women in a recent survey on women in the workplace felt they had to be “extra special” to succeed.
This unhealthy view of life at the top goes some way to explain why we are losing so many women in the barren wasteland of middle management. It’s where the need for authentic role models and committed mentors comes in – not women who make you feel bad about yourself because they have five kids, a corner office and a great blow-dry but women who reassure you that you, too, can have that corner office and are willing to tell you how.
According to Dawson, debunking this superwoman myth means encouraging a culture of storytelling and mentorship. “I think it is really sad when women look up at these impossible ideals and think: ‘I couldn’t do your job’,” she says. “It’s about being really real and open with people about your own journey and your own choices. Yet I would never expect people to make the same choices that I did – I want them to see they can make the choices that work for them and for their family units or even their interests.”
While we’re losing valuable and talented women in the workplace, it’s not for lack of ambition. Yet crucially, women may express and accomplish this ambition in a different way. It’s this misunderstanding of female motivation that led disgraced former Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts to make his ill-advised claim last year that women will not succeed because they possess only an “intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy.” Actually, thinks Dawson, this ambition spurs women to succeed in a more fulfilling way: “Ambition is not just about a top job. Ambition is about a fullness to your life,” she says. “That need for happiness is so important. It will also make you better at your job.”
So does she get angry at such comments from the likes of Roberts or James Damore, the ex-Google employee responsible for that controversial anti-diversity memo? Statements that are potentially combating the excellent work this toolkit will do to help women succeed?
“Nothing like that really makes me angry actually,” she says. “If someone has a diametric point of view to mine, it only allows me to express why I disagree. The important thing is that we are having these conversations now. We can’t make changes if we don’t.”