Inspiring Women into Leadership – Closing the Gender Gap by Janet Hayes

Published 4th May 2020
Janet Hayes of Necton Consulting – Potential in People has recently completed some in-depth research into women’s journeys to partnership in professional services, interviewing lawyers as well as accountants and consultants. This was for an MSc in Coaching and Behavioural Change at Henley Business School.

Why is this important?

Women are still significantly under-represented at senior levels in organisations, despite decades-old equal opportunity and pay legislation and organisations’ focus on diversity. In large professional services firms, like PwC where Janet spent 18 years of her coaching and HR career, in 2017 fewer than 20% of partners were women. In the top ten UK law firms, the proportion of female full equity partners in 2018 was 19% (2013: 16%), although generally law firms recruit more women than men at trainee level.

In 2018, McKinsey’s researchers found that companies who were in the top 25% for the gender diversity of their executive team were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability. Inevitably, having fewer female leaders has a detrimental effect on organisations’ overall gender pay gaps.

Summary of findings

The women partners identified several closely interlinked influences from all stages of their careers that affected their choices in their transition to partnership. How these influences worked dynamically together was fundamental to the women’s identities. Their earlier experiences were key, their value being supported by cumulative advantage theory which maintains that a small advantage compounds over time into an ever-greater advantage.

Having early leadership responsibility seemed to play a key role in building individuals’ sense of self-efficacy, which in turn fostered adaptability and resilience. Neuroscience supports this finding by maintaining that early leadership responsibility prepares and inspires young adults to assume leadership roles.

How can women become leaders?

Seize early responsibility, supported by sponsors, mentors and coaches. Neuroscience tells us that early leadership responsibility prepares and inspires young adults to assume leadership roles. This small advantage over others then builds into an ever-greater advantage as women progress, building their sense of self-efficacy, which in turn fosters their adaptability and resilience, necessary to compete and lead in a volatile and uncertain world.

Raise profile: Raise profile: Women often believe that hard work is enough to get them promoted. It might be at the junior levels, but this changes. When those better at self-promotion advance ahead of them, women realise that they need to raise their profile and play the “political game” to be fairly rewarded for their achievements. Others can help with this: seeking out at least one sponsor is key to being represented at leadership level, and a coach can help women to publicise their achievements whilst remaining authentic.

How can organisations help?

– Give women the opportunity for early leadership responsibility. This will include encouragement and recognition from a wide range of other people, particularly sponsors, but also peers and their teams, as well as access to a coach at an early stage. Peer groups, both men and women, are especially appreciated for moral support with complex lives.

– Explicitly place more reliance on female values and definitions of success

– Use technology to support a flexible working culture where output is rewarded rather than input

– Identify and give more profile to female leaders to act as role models.

And outside of work?

Informal networks and those around women at home are invaluable, especially if the women have children. Of the women leaders with children that Janet interviewed, more than 50% have partners at home that are at least as involved in childcare as they are.

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