How can women advocate for themselves?

01 April 2021

Despite the Hampton-Alexander review recently achieving its target of 33 per cent of board positions on FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies being held by women, overall progress has been slow. In particular, the number of women reaching the highest executive roles has lagged behind, with many non-executive directors making up the numbers. In the FTSE 250, women make up just 21 per cent of executive committees, substantially missing the target of 33 per cent.

Typically, many of the problems lay within middle-management, with women struggling to overcome the hurdles preventing them from reaching senior leadership roles. The root of the problem is not a simple one – it’s tangled in explicit and implicit bias, with dated approaches to hiring, succession planning and leadership development hindering women’s ability to advance further.

At this stage in their careers, many women also temporarily leave the workforce to raise their children – one of the major driving forces behind the gender pay gap. Upon their return, working mothers face further challenges in finding working arrangements with the flexibility to fit around their family commitments, justifying gaps in their CVs and continuing on the upward trajectory from where they left off. By the time their first child celebrates their 20th birthday, the average female employee is said to earn a fifth less than her male counterpart.

The truth is, and has always been, that the responsibility to drive change lies with those who have the power and influence to reset systems. Gender equality cannot be achieved in a vacuum, and as those at the helm of businesses are still predominantly men and allies have an incredibly important role to play. However, women must continue to be active drivers of change in achieving gender parity, continuing to speak up when they are silenced and urging businesses to move beyond setting targets and commit to real, actionable change.

Building bridges for communication

All organisations make mistakes. Without taking into account the lived experiences and specific challenges faced by women, businesses’ efforts to foster a more inclusive workplace often fall flat. A review of employee benefits packages, for example, can easily turn into a box-ticking exercise. Offering extended maternity leave, generous maternity pay, and a flexible working policy may be seen as a way to ‘support’ women in the workplace, but it’s not enough – not to mention that it should never be assumed that all women want to, or are able to, have children of their own. These benefits may boost engagement and retention for a short while, but it does little to aid women’s long-term career progression.

Recognising imbalances and starting open, honest conversations is the first step in breaking down barriers – both visible and invisible – in the workplace. Women need a forum where they can discuss their needs and wants freely, and this is often easier in an all-women  environment such as a dedicated inclusion network. However, a lack of diversity in business is everyone’s problem, not just a problem to be solved by women, meaning men do need to contribute to the debate and work together with women to enact real change. To do so, women must build strong bridges with whoever is making decisions within a business, whether male or female, and continue the conversation until their voices are heard.

Leveraging the impact of role models

It’s critical that female role models are visible at all levels of a business, providing inspiration, guidance and reassurance. This can go a long way to prove that seemingly unattainable goals really are within reach. Role models, particularly those in senior leadership positions, have the ability to amplify the voices of other women, elevating concerns and challenging perspectives in the boardroom. Here, there’s an opportunity to advocate for making women more visible in key meetings, training sessions and panel events, where the attention can – and should – be turned to lesser heard voices.

However, role models needn’t only be positioned within the highest ranks. Line managers, colleagues and former co-workers can all be role models and advocates for each other, empowering other women to speak up when in positions where they feel capable of taking on more responsibility, offering opinions or leading a project. In essence, they can push others outside of their comfort zones, overcoming self-limiting beliefs and Imposter Syndrome – something experienced by 75 per cent of executive women.

Fostering a culture which encourages mentorship

Numerous studies have shown that women tend to be more self-deprecating than men, who tend to have higher levels of belief in themselves, and instead are more likely to highlight where they don’t have skills. A well-cited report from Hewlett-Packard revealed that men will usually apply for a job when they meet only 60 per cent of the requirements, but women will apply only if they meet 100 per cent of them.

Mentors, whether formal or informal, can help women to champion their abilities, build their self-esteem and identity pathways for progression, regardless of what stage of their career they’re at. An ideal mentor challenges, encourages and advocates in equal measure, honing in on where their mentee has strong skills and considering how best to elevate them. When a mentee can see their experiences mirrored in their mentor’s own, their self-confidence rises – even more so when the two work for the same organisation. Internally, mentoring programmes are also an excellent way of nurturing female talent and strengthening the company’s talent pipeline of future leaders.

Gender doesn’t define anyone’s abilities or talents, but it does shape their experience in the workplace. If we are to challenge this, to change this, we must build momentum by empowering women to continue opposing gender bias, positioning role models and mentors at all levels of our organisations and actively removing the obstacles that are preventing female advancement.