Why is it important to celebrate women’s achievements?

13 March 2020

In 2010, a working mother of nine found a new plate to spin. Helena Morrissey was already the CEO at Newton Investment Management when she set up The 30% Club, a campaign to improve the representation of women on the boards of FTSE100 companies. Recognising that diversity in an organisation leads to enhanced performance, Morrissey set a goal to women make up 30 per cent on boards of the UK’s 100 biggest organisations – a tall task considering that women occupied just 12.5 per cent of board seats at the time.

The campaign brought much needed scrutiny to the UK’s boardrooms. The way in which companies broaden the pipeline of women, the route to the C-Suite and the obstacles faced by them, particularly those who are mothers, very quickly came into sharp focus. The original target was reached in September 2018. One year later, an extended target of 30 per cent representation on FTSE 350 boards was also achieved. While there’s still more to do, there’s little doubt of the impact this campaign has had in propelling more women into senior roles in the corporate world.

For the organisations that hire and support these women to advance, there have been some tangible and impressive results. Research by Credit Suisse has shown that in companies where 20 per cent of executives are women, the share price is significantly higher than in companies where there are fewer women in senior roles. The same study also found that family-owned companies with at least one woman on the board outperformed companies with all-male boards by five to one.

Morrissey’s efforts to diversify the city’s boardrooms led to a much deserved damehood in 2017 – a celebration of her efforts to change the face of corporate Britain. Whether it’s through royal recognition, power lists or International Women’s Day, acknowledging the achievements of women who break through the glass ceiling has a vital role to play in promoting further diversity. Liv Garfield of Severn Trent, Alison Rose of RBS and Emma Walmsley of GSK are not just the CEOs of some of the biggest organisations in the country, they are also role models, proving not only that women can reach the upper echelons of the corporate world, but that they can do so while still having a family. A survey by the Young Women’s Trust found that one in eight employers would be reluctant to hire women who might have children. With archaic attitudes like this still so prevalent, it’s more important than ever that we celebrate the women who have defied gender stereotypes and raise them up as examples of what is possible.

Nurturing female talent and supporting the advancement of women to more C-Suite roles will require sustained efforts on all fronts. We know that women’s career progression tails off after having children, with many forced into part-time work in low-paying sectors in order to achieve the flexibility they require to balance motherhood and career; in fact, 67 per cent of women who work part-time are overqualified for jobs they are doing. Organisations the world over are haemorrhaging female talent at a time when they can scarcely afford to lose skilled workers. Normalising flexible working at all levels of seniority can help to clear the pathway to the boardroom for women who also happen to have children.

But the responsibility is not entirely that of employers. As a society, we also have a responsibility to dismantle the stereotypes that hold women back. We need to consider how we talk about topics such as caring responsibilities and who should perform those roles. We need to examine whether we are encouraging young girls to consider all of their career and study options including those in STEM. And alongside all of this, we need to ensure that this dialogue is inclusive of young boys and men, who can also be inhibited by outdated views of what is expected of them.

Achieving gender balance in the C-Suite and society as a whole, is no small task. In fact, there are still more CEOs in the FTSE 100 named Steve than there are women CEOs. More change is certainly needed, but in celebrating how far we’ve come, we’re also reminded that more change is possible.