What impressed me most was that she started out thinking that the status quo was a female choice but she soon changed her mind faced with clear evidence that a 50:50 gender balance (in her own company) was more profitable for the employer and probably a happier place to work. All this and to be told by gender consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox that she’d used her female strengths to benefit her business running her ship her way or else!
Of course real life isn’t an ideal world in any male dominated industry like Hilary’s logistics one and we’re much the same in the motor industry. A few feisty females in top Board positions but we’d probably struggle to make 5% let alone 50% as an industry average for Female Board Directors overall. Having said that I do think things are getting better in a few female friendly working environments, especially at middle management and in customer service roles.
Queen Bee by nature or nurture?
Undoubtedly Hilary is a Queen Bee in her business and industry. She knows she has brought fame and fortune to her business by virtue of her gender and talents but she doesn’t promote that when advertising for staff. I think she’ll change this now because if she would like to recruit the best person for the job, this means including females, and women like to see ‘women like them’ (or women to aspire to be) in their employer of choice. This is a lesson other male dominated businesses should address where they can, as well as promoting other female friendly credentials to potential recruits.
It isn’t good enough in my book for high flying females in male dominated industries to say ‘I haven’t found any discrimination in my career’ when it’s obvious that it exists all around them when they look. What they should be asking themselves is ‘what have I done to make this business a more female friendly place for others to follow in my wake?’
The way I see it, female Board members, no matter the industry they work in, need to represent the best interests of their customers (a likely 50:50 male:female split) and to get customer services right they must address their needs and expectations. This often means influencing the culture of a business from within especially if it is such a male dominated one as in the motor industry. Clearly the business case suggests that diversity needs to be a top level strategic objective for Boards; I have yet to find it to be so in the motor industry.
Is it worth the journey to the top?
Women who read this and who work in a naturally female friendly industry like fashion, health and beauty, won’t get this or appreciate the different business culture in a male dominated industry. This is where women have to fight to get to the top, often by being more blokey than the men they are competing with. But they shouldn’t have to do either; their talents should be nurtured, recognised and appreciated. But nurturing, recognition and appreciation aren’t natural male jargon whereas ‘demanding’, ‘relentless’ and ‘gravitas’ are the more likely terminology, as the financial recruitment adverts discussed in the programme illustrated. The ideal recruit clearly was a man!
But when she finally gets to her Board Nirvana, that’s when the fun and games can start, especially if she is the first female there. She doesn’t think like a man and if she’s there to be make up the numbers she won’t be listened to when she has a different point of view. In such instances she won’t last the course and she’ll consider herself a failure whereas it probably isn’t her fault. And the male status quo merchants will nod wisely because they always knew a man would have done a better job!
The female choice
It’s not a one sided game of course. Women can have babies and they can have a career. Yes they can have both and it can be done. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of the employer.
Hilary returned to work soon after having her son and I did too after 6 weeks. Needs dictated we both did. Neither son has suffered I’m sure but we both probably wish we could have spent longer in that unusual and special state of motherly euphoria.
But we’re talking about real life and I believe that some women can be more honest with their employers after the birth of their child, knowing how generous maternity and paternity leave is today. I’d like to see those that plan to return to work for a SME appreciate the sacrifice that employers make to keep their job open for them. This is a costly exercise but worth it in the end for them both of course. Those that can resume some sort of work at an earlier stage, using technology as I did, should start to do so if only to show an employer that she is doing her best to say thank you – and for having chosen a family AND a career. Those that have no intention of returning to work after the child’s birth do their gender a disservice by waiting until the last moment to let their employer down.
That’s when childcaring Mums (or Dads but there are fewer of them) have to settle for a job not a career; like the 4 out of 10 Mums with degrees who accept lower jobs than they are capable of.
For me the star of the show was Proctor & Gamble who showed that a huge organisation could turn its culture around in ten years, making it the female friendly employer it undoubtedly is today. Easier for big companies than small said Sir Stuart Rose (ex of M&S) but I can’t help thinking that having a committed female at Board level, with a mandate to achieve this in the UK, was a key factor in leading this change.
I hope leading luminaries in the motor industry were watching this programme and took it seriously.
Next week Hilary looks at ways to make businesses, including her own, more female friendly including the matter of whether to impose quotas to get to the magic 50:50 formula.
Happily the business case is clear but when the Mum at Ford spoke about feeling guilty when she left work at 5pm for family reasons (and then worked c3 hours that evening after her children went to bed) I can’t help thinking that the way to retain the best staff has to do with a more flexible outlook towards technology.
But either way, let’s embrace diversity everywhere in British business, making a start at Board level in the many male dominated industries that remain, including the UK’s motor industry. We need the improved ROI that women can bring.