So... I apologise that it's taken me much longer than I might have hoped to get back on the blog, but I couldn't let the recent International Women's Day and the publishing of the McKinsey report 'Women Matter' pass too far by without adding my observations. So this isn't directly retail related- but as our industry employs a lot of women, hopefully you'll still find it relevant.
You are probably already aware of the controversial headline statistic from that report: that whilst 55% of university graduates in Europe are female, women still only occupy 12.5% of FTSE 100 company board positions. This seems unforgiveable and such a wasted opportunity. But I don't need to preach about the benefits of having women at senior levels in industry- the results speak for themselves, as the report confirmed- company boards and management committees with more women simply have the best performance, and generate 'a richer set of ideas',
The real issue is understanding what is happening here, and crucially- what we can do about it.
I don't doubt that an element of this is due to discrimination resulting from still deeply entrenched sexism at senior levels within business; as an anecdote from Cherie Blair at a recent Google event ('Women Who Inspire') demonstrated. She regaled the audience with the story of the Davos World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in which the overwhelming male delegates were issue with 5 plus ones, and instructed that the fifth should be a woman (obviously to improve their opportunity for the same high level access, visibility, and networking opportunities that this somewhat old boys club already enjoy), and the astonishingly high number who chose to only bring four (male) delegates with them rather than find a women to offer the fifth invitation to. But I don't think this is the whole story.
It's also well known that previously 'high flying' career women come crashing back down to earth, and out of the running for the rum jobs, after they have children. This is of course by choice for a lot of women, as this major life event forces us to re-evaluate priorities and our work-life balance, and many decide that family life is more important. But I suspect that for even more women, this slowing down (or complete standstill) of a previously fast moving and rewarding career is simply due to the lack of flexible options at senior levels, to allow women to balance a senior role with parenting responsibilities.
There are so many ways in which companies could facilitate a more flexible working week for mothers that would enable them to still perform at a high level at work whilst still being able to be as involved at home as they needed to be. Some might argue that options such as part-time work, compressed weeks, job-shares, flexible start/finish times, or working from home, mean that mothers aren't able to achieve as much in the role, are not as committed, or 'aren't working as hard', these arguments are simply a distraction from the real goal- ensuring that all the knowledge, expertise and the skills a woman has developed and honed throughout her working life, are not lost to the company as soon as she enters that delivery suite.
Finally, I wonder how much of the problem lie with ourselves as women, and the innate traits that many of us apparently share, as more and more evidence suggests that femalemisplaced modesty and self-deprecation about our achievements and abilities, and a sometimes debilitating lack of self belief, is what hinders many of us in reaching for (and getting) those senior jobs, whilst male colleagues with more confidence and less caution, aim higher and get further. We can learn something from this approach, trusting more in our own abilities, taking a few chances and lets face it, being a bit more ballsy, in order to get where we want to in our careers.
Perhaps you're wondering why I haven't mentioned the contentious quotas that are already in place in some part of Europe and may come our way if we can improve those percentages? Well, if this is the only way we can get more women on the board then I reluctantly support them, but as a last resort. Quotas are patronising, and even worse, mean that any women who does succeed in reaching a high level in their career may well always get a sideways glance from colleagues questioning whether they got there on their own merits or are simply making up the numbers- and that would be a terrible shame.
Let hope that by next year's International Women's Day, we've managed to improve the situation without having to consider this option...