12/01/2015

By Dannie-Lu Carr, Co-Founder, The Five Gateways


Picture a typical boardroom. A long, wide table with ten people of varying ages and races, all at senior level — seven of them are male and three of them are female. An important discussion takes hold and becomes fairly vocal, with several people debating the most effective way forward for an issue with high consequences. The likelihood is that there will be one woman out of the three who is speaking up and there will be six out of the seven men speaking up for what they believe to be the best course of action.

Notice anything wrong with this picture? Well firstly, the equal representation between male and female still needs some work, that’s clear. More importantly than that, though, out of the female presence at the table (30%) only 33.3% are actually speaking up. This means that at the average boardroom table, only 9.99% of the voices that are really being heard are female.

There are many reports and evidence that suggest companies with a strong female representation at board and top management level perform far better than those without. Boards will inevitably make stronger all-round decisions when there are a variety of different voices with a range of different life experiences to inform varying perspectives on any given situation.

However, at the current rate of change within the UK it would take a whole 70 years to achieve gender balance at board level.

In 2011, the UK Institute of Leadership and Management surveyed British managers about how confident they feel in their professions. And it appears that this is the crunch point because over half of the females reported a lack of self-confidence about their job performance and careers. Less than a third of the men reported this. The direct correlation between confidence and competence is staggering. Believe it and you will do it. Believe you can’t and you won’t.

So what needs to change? Well, fundamentally, the beliefs and then the resulting behaviours of both men and women around the whole thing. Many women don’t take the whole of themselves to work for fear of being ‘found out’, ‘judged’, or both. The ‘imposter syndrome’ amongst women is so common it could almost be described as an epidemic.

Another problem with the imposter syndrome is that it is, of course, imaginary. The female inner critic will often tell the woman that she isn’t qualified enough, good enough, strong enough, etc., to have her point of view validated so she tends not to speak up. Men are very different in that they tend to just go for it without so much worry. They leap in because there is no doubt in their minds that they have a right to.

As a result, what tends to happen is that women either shrink away, unheard, or they bolster up and show only their tougher side in a working environment. To hold up only this tough side is exhausting and also, means that women don’t bring some of their other leadership strengths to the table.

Terms like ‘career woman’ haven’t helped much. If a woman is a ‘career woman’ with children at home, then the likelihood is that she will split herself in half, leaving the softer side for her family and accessing only the tougher side at work. And those of us without kids will do it too, saving the softer side for our partners and friends because terms like this unconsciously make us feel we need to be more ‘male’ at work in order to be taken seriously.

Our culture and the unconscious, under-surface concepts that many people hold which embed it need to be held up to the light and looked at with bravery and honesty in order to shift things. So far they have, for the most part, been brushed over or ignored.

This isn’t about a ‘blame game’, it is simply a time to move onwards, upwards and in an altogether different direction. So have courage to have the conversations, dare to speak up and address what is really going on around any issue. By working to do it in an authentic way, not a hard-nosed ‘career woman’ way, confidence will soar, more female voices will be heard for what they really have to offer and we can begin to look forward to a reaching a true gender balance far sooner than predicted.