International Women’s Day: breaking down bias in the workplace

Just nine FTSE 100 companies are led by female CEOs. Ahead of International Women’s Day, four female business leaders outlined the challenges at a Raconteur event

The odds are still stacked against women in the upper echelons of the business world. For International Women’s Day (IWD), four female business leaders break down the biggest challenges they’ve faced in their careers so far. 

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘break the bias’, but whether it’s moments of everyday sexism, the gender pay gap or the lack of women occupying top positions in companies, women still face many barriers in the workplace. 

This is reflected in the statistics, with just nine female CEOs in the top role at FTSE 100 businesses. Bias is a key contributor, according to Dr Joanna Abeyie, CEO and founder of executive search firm Blue Moon, who was speaking at a Raconteur roundtable for IWD. 

“There’s bias that we’re all aware of in the recruitment process, in the way that businesses promote within their organisation and the development opportunities given to particular individuals,” she said. 

Through running her executive recruitment business, Abeyie has become familiar with many of the biases that influence people’s judgements when hiring for leadership positions. These can range from an individual’s sexuality, marriage status or even their age. Women are often considered too old or young for a role, she said. 

“You could be incredibly driven, competent and capable but in your mid-30s and some people will say that’s far too young to be holding a leadership position. Or equally, people may think you’re at the end of your career, in spite of you feeling that you have another decade of ideas, energy and enthusiasm to give.” 

Changing the game 

The issue of bias in recruitment is something that Kelly Simmons, Football Association (FA) director of the women’s professional game, has faced in her career. Working in an industry that has been dominated by men for most of its history has made it particularly challenging. 

“Research shows that people like to hire in their own image and I sit in a lot of rooms where people look the same – football has previously been dominated by a lot of white older men,” she said. 

Confronting this culture has been the biggest challenge for Simmons, who has often had to deal with gender bias head on. One of her favourite anecdotes came from a recent women’s football match. A questionable offside decision was given by the referee and a man sitting next to her in the crowd turned to her and proceeded to explain the ruling. “He later asked if I was there to watch my daughter,” Simmons added. “To which I said: ‘No, I’m the director of the women’s professional game.’ At that point they shut up very quickly.”

These tired, sexist attitudes remain the reality for many women in business. Despite running her own company, Abeyie said there can still be an assumption from others that women are not as competent when it comes to numbers or understanding the breadth of a business deal and the terms of reference. 

“I’ve had accountants say, ‘You’re not like a typical female entrepreneur; you take risks like male entrepreneurs do.’” There have even been instances where she’s been advised to “go full glam” ahead of attending business meetings with men. 

Balancing dual demands 

Of the nine blue chip CEOs, the majority have risen through the ranks of their organisations. For PensionBee CEO Romi Savova, this suggests that the executive pipeline at many organisations is still excluding women.  

“The reality is, when you look at the women that are just below executive director level, they are in a relative minority compared to men,” she said at the roundtable event. “That contrasts with what we see in the very early career stage where women are fairly equally represented within their peer group. So what that tells me is that somewhere in the middle, women are falling off for some reason.” 

Becoming a mother can be a contributing factor to this discrepancy, she believes. Savova thinks that taking time out of the workplace can create anxiety. Then, on their return, mothers have to face the “double juggle” of being a successful businessperson and a good mother. 

According to recent research commissioned by Vodafone, mothers are almost twice as likely to say they take on the majority of childcare pressures; a quarter spent less time on paid work as a result.  “It’s around that time that a lot of women do tend to step back or move into self-employment,” Savova added. “It may not be every woman, but it is definitely more than among the male population, which is why the ranks tend to thin out and those effects propagate themselves over time.” 

Abbie Miranda, founder of women’s lingerie company Beija London, has felt the same pressures in her professional career. “You go from having a screaming match about hair clips straight into a serious finance meeting,” she said. “The difference between those situations is so vast and it all happens within three minutes, but you’re still expected to present as a cool, calm and collected businesswoman.” 

The intersectionality of business leaders is also an important consideration. None of the nine CEOs are from a BAME background. People from a working-class background or with disabilities are also still underrepresented at the top levels of the corporate world. “We see the same stories constantly being repeated, which makes it difficult for people to look at an individual’s skills and capabilities in isolation, instead of trying to make decisions on who you are as a person outside of the workplace,” Abeyie said. 

If businesses are to become more representative and break down preexisting biases within their organisational culture, business leaders will have to stop elevating only those they identify with. “Unfortunately at the moment, if you don’t fit in, that bias overrides,” Abeyie added.