Our super high-speed world and the slow road to gender equality

We are constantly being told that we live in a fast-moving world where perpetual motion is vaunted, almost prized, and standing still, whether you are a person or a business, is seen as laziness, even some kind of precursor to death.  But all change is perhaps not equal and in the gender equality and diversity world different laws of physics seem to apply.  In terms of representation of women holding Executive Directorships in the UK’s largest FTSE 100 companies, Cranfield - in its latest female FTSE report (2018) - described the figure as having “flatlined” for 4 years at 9.7%.  Flat lining in a fast-moving world is an achievement – of sorts.


Some companies seem to have trouble keeping track of reality. Google’s strapline claiming an “accelerated approach to diversity and inclusion” might at best represent an aspiration.  Their figures show that only 25% of “leadership” positions are occupied by women, and what “leadership” means is not defined.  In the current climate of #MeToo, gender equality has become a mass cause, as was manifest in the placards carried by some of those who walked out of Google’s offices (“Time’s Up Tech” for example) yesterday in support of better treatment for women.  Employees presented a list of demands to Google and Google is said to be considering them.  I would hope that Google will not purely rely on disenfranchised employees to find all the solutions but will (in an accelerated fashion) take on board the growing research and expertise on how organisations can create cultures that are more inclusive of women and other underrepresented groups.


It is disheartening to see how little has changed since I left the tech sector in 2004. Of course I have my own Time’s Up Tech stories, of how I worked as the most senior woman within a European mobile operator whose top management team was described as “diverse” by the CEO despite being made up entirely of men. There was quite a broad age range, a few had beards and one was Asian, so perhaps that was what he meant.  When I resigned on my first pregnancy, the CEO supported my decision on the basis that his marriage had suffered from him travelling too much in his younger years. He had earlier refused to allow me to work flexibly part time from Hamburg where Mr Laurent was located at the time.  On my last day in the office, the HR Director (male) asked me what I would do after I had my baby and wondered if I had considered a career in fashion: I had 15 years of legal and regulatory experience at European level, including running ground-breaking regulatory campaigns for change, so the link with fashion was obvious.  I could go on, but I won’t. I think you get the picture.


I would like to think that none of these scenarios would play out in today’s world, but what I have learned from my professional dealings with lots of women tells me otherwise. They still talk of feeling excluded and isolated, of not having the right networks and of not being heard. They are still too often expected to pour the coffee in meetings. One young management consultant spoke of her boss’s outrage when she announced to him that she was expecting her first child.


Given the glacial rate of change for women, the birth of the #It’sAHardTimeToBeAMan movement is premature, to put it mildly.  A young man in a recent book-launch audience with Ruth Davidson stood up and actually said, in all seriousness, that given the high numbers of women at university, laws would soon be needed to protect men’s equality in the workplace.  I have got good news for him: the signs remain pretty rosy for men. In my old stomping ground, the legal profession, women have been taking up more than 50% of university places in Law since at least the late 1980s, when I graduated.  Law firm partnerships paint a very different picture. Only 29% of partners in larger City firms are women, whilst in the top ten magic circle firms that number is 18%. Even those women that make it earn on average 24% less than their male counterparts, itself indicative of a culture that is not very appreciative of their contribution.  Women leave law firms in droves and not just to have children. It seems they just don’t like the culture very much and see no future for themselves in it.


It seems that the legal and tech sectors both have a lot of work to do if they want to achieve the levels of inclusivity to which they aspire – and they are not alone. My own experience and that of many other women indicate that more is needed than a one-off course on unconscious bias and a shared parental leave scheme.  It is time to take stock of the work cultures we have established over at least the last century – and probably the educational environment of our children too, although that’s a blog in its own right - and recognise that they are probably no longer fit for purpose in many ways.  We pride ourselves on being good at change (and fast to achieve it) in the modern world.  Now should be the moment to step back from the daily whirlwind and pay attention to how work is experienced in our organisations by those not in power and be ready to make real and lasting change.