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Where are the women in leadership?

Interview with Jane Honey, guest speaker at our Executive Lunch Roundtable

It may seem incredible but the topic of female representation in the workplace and diversity in leadership is still a thorny issue in 2019. Women now make up almost half of the UK’s workforce but are still significantly unrepresentative in senior management. According to 2018 figures from Grant Thornton, women hold just 24% of senior roles in business globally. Despite targets set by the government for women to make up at least 33% of FTSE 350 boards and leadership teams by 2020, a large proportion of those companies still only have a single female board member.

At our most recent Executive Lunch Roundtable, held at the Ritz Restaurant in London, we invited our guests to discuss the topic of Diversity in Tech and Leadership and how businesses could encourage more women to take up senior leadership roles. Our guest speaker was Jane Honey, Product Director at Intercom. Her experience of moving up the ranks, as well as mentoring colleagues over the years, has given her insight into the reasons that women are less visible in senior leadership roles.

What is your experience of female leadership?

Since leaving nursing 30 years ago, I have worked in several different industries and held over 20 different roles, and in that time, I have never reported into a woman, ever. While that may sound incredible, I don’t think that it’s that unusual. It’s still the case that in large corporations, the higher up the tree you go, the fewer women you see, and that’s backed up by empirical research from across the UK and US. It took a long time for me to realise that I should put myself forward for leadership roles. There was a point that I noticed that I was still applying for ‘deputy’ level jobs even though I was overqualified, but I didn’t have many examples of female leaders to follow.

Like many women, I think “imposter syndrome” stopped me from pushing myself forward. Over the years, I have started to feel more confident in myself as a leader, and find my stride in a style of leadership that feels true to how I am. An important contributor to this confidence has come through building a network of strong allies who I can rely on for advice and support, and through mentoring other women as they build their careers.

What do you see are the key barriers to women gaining senior management positions?

I think a major barrier is the lack of role models. If we don’t see many women in senior leadership roles, it’s hard to imagine ourselves doing those roles. Various studies show that women are more confident and perform better in environments where they are exposed to female role models. As I mentioned, women often feel like “imposters” as they gain seniority, and I suspect this is because they have a limited frame of reference where it comes to seeing how other women manage.

It’s well known that, rightly or wrongly, most mothers take more time out of the workplace than men, and this can have an impact on their career. My partner and I have always shared childcare, and we’ve both worked part-time for over 10 years to balance parenting and careers. Even though at times it has been tough – paying for childcare often takes most of your take-home pay – I have been able to keep my career on track. However, many women face a stark choice, particularly early in their careers when your salary may not even cover childcare – it may be more financially savvy to stay at home, if you’re lucky to have a partner who earns more money, and in the long run this slows down your progression at work.

Why do you think this is such a common issue in the tech industry?

I think that, at least in part, this goes back to education. Far fewer women than men choose to study STEM subjects in higher education – for example, only 18% of computer science degrees last year were awarded to women – therefore they do not initially follow tech careers. You see this across tech industries: only 13% of practicing engineers are women and 85% of data scientists are male.

There is growing evidence about the power of ‘seeing’ role models in action: there was a study that found that girls who have female science teachers are significantly more likely to follow a STEM career than those with male science teachers. There is a famous quote from Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

How could businesses improve diversity in leadership?

I think the most important thing is for business to create a culture where women can thrive. This starts with hiring policy and processes: I don’t believe that we should have hiring quotas but hiring managers should be aware of the language they use in job adverts as this can have an impact on how candidates view their suitability for the role. Training is crucial for all of us to ensure that we’re aware of our unconscious bias plus businesses need to have robust diversity and inclusion policies in place.

I am a great believer in mentoring; having someone you can turn to for advice and support is hugely valuable to anyone’s career, and I think that this benefits both parties – for me it’s a great way to stay fresh, learn about the challenges facing others and ensure that I role model the type of support I’d want to receive. Lastly, business managers should set the example by encouraging female employees to take on leadership roles and ‘lean in’ to conversations about business strategy or planning.

 

Thanks again to Jane for introducing the topic and to everyone who attended the roundtable. If you are interested in attending future Conosco Executive Lunch Roundtable events, please send a message to roundtable@conosco.com