Nurturing ambition to bring out the best in women

Initiatives aimed at developing women’s careers are growing in number, but will take time to deliver results, as Karen Higginbottom reports

Female graduates start out on a level playing field alongside their male counterparts, but it’s a dramatically different story at the top of the organisation. Women represent 59 per cent of university graduates in the UK; however, they only account for 15.6 per cent of director roles in FTSE 100 organisations.

The “drop-out” of women from graduate to senior levels can be attributed to a complex cocktail of reasons, such as women de-selecting themselves due to family commitments and a dearth of appropriate female role models.

“For women in their early to mid-twenties, they want a life and career, and if they reach senior roles, they don’t want to sacrifice their life,” remarks Lyndsey Simpson, co-founder of human resources services provider, The Curve Group, whose clients include Barclays and RBS. “They don’t necessarily see the women at the top of their organisation as people they aspire to be like as they see them working long hours and outsourcing their family.”

Young women may also be held back by a lack of ambition and confidence compared to their male counterparts, according to an Ambition and gender at work report published by the Institute of Leadership and Management. Just half of women surveyed had expected to become managers when they embarked on their career, compared to almost two-thirds of men.

One way to support young women aspiring to senior roles is to build their confidence in their leadership abilities, says Professor Susan Vinnicombe, director of the International Centre for Women Leaders at Cranfield School of Management. “Organisations can do this through mentoring, which in its full sense should include sponsorship. You could get a senior executive sponsoring a woman for promotion. That one-to-one contact with mentors within an organisation is vital for young women as the mentors know how to get to the top.”

Development of young women is crucial for ensuring more gender parity at middle and senior levels of an organisation

A career coach can also help to unearth the ambitions of young women starting their career at an organisation, says Penny De Valk, chief executive of leadership development consultancy Cedar. “Young women want to have conversations about their career ambitions and that person might not necessarily be their line manager. A career coach can ensure those discussions are confidential. A good coach can be a powerful tool at graduate level as they can make explicit what the women are often throttling back in terms of ambition.”

The 30% Club, a group of executives voluntarily committed to bringing more women on to UK corporate boards, has launched an initiative aimed at improving the pipeline of senior female talent through collaboration with FTSE 350 companies.

The Executive Pipeline Action Group works with companies in co-ordinating efforts to improve the female executive pipeline, partly by promoting best practice and celebrating success stories as female role models.

Helena Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management and a 30% Club founder, says: “With the spotlight firmly on the issue, along with concerted efforts and an open approach, we are optimistic that more women will be encouraged to develop their careers. But success cannot be achieved overnight as it takes many years to develop senior executives.”

Jane Scott, UK director of the Professional Boards Forum and a 30% Club steering committee member, says the initiative is aimed at helping more women to sustain corporate careers. Concerted and specific efforts are needed to overcome the complex set of reasons why many women leave the workforce at a critical stage in their career – typically, but not always, catalysed by starting a family.

“Companies are increasingly aware that it is vital to retain their women executives to contribute to performance at the most senior levels, and to make women feel that they are both valued and needed in business,” she says.

But it’s not all about female graduates. Some of the big banks focus on female undergraduates to ensure that their graduate intake is as diverse as possible.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch runs in-house female A-level and undergraduate programmes, and events aimed at encouraging women to consider a career in the financial services industry.

“By connecting female students with our female employees at these events and providing them with networking opportunities, it gives them an understanding of the breadth of careers available to them. We also hope these events will provide them with role models who could also provide mentoring,” says Merve Cinarli, the firm’s campus diversity recruitment manager, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The development of young women is crucial for ensuring more gender parity at middle and senior levels of an organisation, says Ms De Valk. “If organisations fail to develop young women at the start of their career, then the quality of leadership in UK organisations will be compromised as the talent is falling out of the leadership pipeline due to gender, not capability.”