At present only 12% of FTSE 100 company directors are women. Lord Davies of Abersoch is pushing for action to get more women into top jobs at the same time as the EU is proposing to introduce quotas to ensure up to 30% female representation on company Boards. Do we need this?
There are two presuppositions here, firstly that women want to get to the top and secondly that they are able to. No-one doubts that there are many highly motivated clever females in the workplace with the skills, experience, knowledge, ability and desire to excel. What might have been overlooked is that a significant cultural shift needs to take place in order for those women to move up the career ladder and into the boardroom. At present the work culture in large organisations is one of long working hours, heavy work loads, rigid routines and high expectations of an employee’s ability to drop everything and be available for schmoozing clients out of hours, attending ‘drop of the hat’ business meetings and generally being on call at all times. This is not always compatible with the demands on many women outside the workplace.
Many of these excellent women find it easier and more attractive to fulfil their ambitions by finding a more flexible entrepreneurial working environment, perhaps in a dynamic smaller company or by starting their own business where they can structure their working life around family, children and other commitments. They also favour sectors where they can work collaboratively and within teams, as evidenced by Anna Fels in her research on how ambitious women are . She found that women also tend to direct their ambition in to supportive roles and ones where they can work with other women and that they perform well with a variety of goals.
We know about the glass ceiling culture in boardrooms and amongst senior management and we also have glass cliffs - jobs women are promoted to which have less support and greater likelihood of possible failure. Research suggests that women are more likely to be promoted to higher positions when their organisation is facing crises  and that this is when they have the opportunity to break through the glass ceiling. This has a silver lining as the researchers go on to say that as more women enter higher level management roles “ female leaders won’t be selected primarily for risky turnarounds – and will get more chances to run organisations that have good odds of continued success.”
There are three steps to effecting the necessary cultural shift to get women into leadership positions that do not involve legislating:
• Step one is changing the way women work and the way their working environment is structured.
• Step two is allowing women to openly embrace being ambitious and to not be in a conflicting relationship with their ambition to succeed and excel.
• Step three is to recognise women’s ability, promoting through merit, not through legislation.
As Anna Bird, acting CEO of the Fawcett Society said recently “Outdated stereotypes about men’s and women’s role have an insidious effect on cultural attitudes about who should do which jobs”. Time for some new thinking….
 Anna Fels – Do Women Lack Ambition? Harvard Business Review
 Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16, 81-90 . (abstract)]
 Susanne Bruckmuller and Nyla R Branscombe Harvard Business Review. Hbr.org/2011/01/how-women-end-up-on-the-glass-cliff/ar/1