Men a key weapon in women’s battle for top jobs

May 8, 2012

By Maria Caspani

I recently went to the launch of the Women’s Empowerment Principles, hosted by the UK chapter of the United Nations women’s agency (UN Women) in London.

The principles – signed by over 400 CEOs worldwide – provide companies with a framework to improve women’s empowerment and promote gender equality in the workplace.

It was thrilling to be in the same room eating canapés and sipping white wine with 85 top executives of UK and global companies—particularly because they were practically all women.

And, being a woman myself, I couldn’t help but feel…well, proud.

Some inspiring panelists highlighted the progress made toward gender equality in global companies as well as in small businesses. But they also drew attention to the long path ahead before a well-balanced and inclusive work environment is achieved in Britain.

Lady Lindsay Northover, the UK government’s spokesperson in the House of Lords on international development and government whip on health, justice and women and equalities, said a “tremendous amount” still needs to be done. She pointed to the 1 million women who are unemployed in the UK, despite many of them having a top education and being as qualified as their male counterparts.

One of the most pressing issues preventing women from achieving more ambitious goals in their careers is their struggle to balance work and family life, Northover said.

She added that the current government is looking to reform maternal and paternal leave to allow more shared care of children between mothers and fathers.

An interesting point was made by Marie Sigsworth, director of global corporate responsibility at Aviva, one of Europe’s largest insurance firms. She said that the way to put women on a par with men in the office is not “bashing men or fixing women, but it is about coming up with a plan to work together to advance one’s organisation’s progress.”

Robert Swannell – chairman of Marks & Spencer, one of the UK’s top retailers and a member of the 30% Club – said it is in every company’s self-interest to employ women.

Getting more women on board isn’t just the right thing to do, but it also makes economic sense because they add to the business and actively increase profits, he said.

All of the panelists agreed that what workplaces lack at the moment is a good role model for ambitious women.

When women turn down top level jobs  - and they do so in a much higher percentage than men – it is due to various reasons, such as not being able to juggle family and work duties.

Company role models could help pave the way, showing that flexibility doesn’t clash with leadership.

On a positive note, Northover pointed out that this year there were only nine male-only boardrooms of companies in the UK, down 21 percent from last year.

Moreover, over the past year, 27 percent of new appointments in the FTSE100 went to women, the panel said. And three FTSE 100 companies have already reached the goal of having at least 30 percent of women on their boards (the UK average is 15.8), according to a February report by Investment and Pensions Europe.

It was great seeing such impressive women sharing ideas and battling for the advancement of women’s rights.

And it was heartening knowing that there are so many of them, so many successful and motivated leaders who provide great inspiration to all of us.

Challenges aside, one thing that left me a bit discouraged was the lack of men at the event. You could count them on two hands in a crowd of 85 or so people.

Women already know how important gender equality is, in business as well as in everyday life, because they are the ones experiencing the discrimination. But if we don’t get men who – let’s be honest – still rule the corporate world, involved and active in the challenge, I’m afraid the road to gender equality will be an even rockier one.

I don’t know how to do such a thing but I believe that in order to have more women leaders in the corporate world and in society we need to recruit more men to the cause.

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