A FTSE 100 chief executive is more likely to be called David than to be a woman. Last year there were 9 Daves and 7 women CEOs. Why is that?
Women account for almost half of the total UK labour market but less than 5% of chief executives in the UK are women. Women have more degrees than men but only a fifth of UK universities are run by women. Over a third of all companies globally still don't have female representation on their management boards. Women are still getting paid less for doing the same jobs as men.
In countries such as Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland, the gender gap is a lot smaller. However, in a lot of countries in Asia, the gap between genders is still massive. In Japan, for instance, last year there was only 9% total female representation in the Japanese parliament.
Due to the aggressive and competitive nature of politics and leadership there is a perception that femininity produces weaker leadership. Even in the UK parliament, less than 30% of positions are taken up by women. But what is causing such a big gap between men and women?
A few years ago, I was invited, along with a few other award-winning female entrepreneurs, to the House of Commons. The speaker said that they were very keen to have more women in parliament and encouraged us to consider getting into politics. He said that they just didn't have enough interest from women. And that’s a very interesting point.
I believe that part of the problem is in the upbringing of women. In many cultures, the countries and churches were set up and run by men. Women were not allowed to be part of them. Unfortunately, the impact of this male dominance is still very evident in sections of the world today.
In the Vatican, women still cannot become cardinals and they can’t vote for the pope. Worldwide, 62 million girls are still being denied access to education – Michelle Obama started shining light on this issue by starting the “Let Girls Learn” initiative in 2015. Every year, an estimated 15 million girls under the age of 18 are being forced into marriages against their will. Until recently, women in Saudi Arabia weren't allowed to drive and are still being discouraged from working jobs that would put them in contact with men.
As young girls we are made to believe that we are weaker than men. We need a strong prince on a horse to rescue us from a tower, or we need to have more self control and be more polite. On the other hand, boys are made to believe that they need to be strong and brave. They need to have a lot of courage, take risks and not to be afraid of anything. They are supposed to look after women because they are “weak” and “vulnerable”.
This belief is embedded in many cultures. It is because of this that women tend to have less confidence. According to research, women will apply for a promotion only when they believed they met 100% of the qualifications listed. Men are happy to apply when they met 60% of the requirements. After all, they have nothing to lose.
When it comes to physicality, there’s a really interesting fact about women – they really excel at ultra-running. Very often they beat men. Men tend to think 'harder, faster, stronger', whereas women tend to think with more determination and tenacity. There is a natural strength to women that is required to bear children. It is inherently embedded into a woman's make-up. They are tough and robust and, statistically, live longer.
When it comes to racing they are more sensible with pacing themselves and far less likely to give up and drop out. They slow down 18% less in the second half of an ultra-marathon. The longer the race, the greater the chance for women to shine. Women have very good mental toughness. Amber Miller, a running enthusiast from America, gave birth to her baby 7 hours after completing the Chicago marathon. That is truly remarkable.
But when it comes to careers and leadership, women are still falling behind. The work-life balance is often more difficult for women, because they are generally expected by society to act as the primary caregivers for children and maintainers of the home. For this reason, men tend to be promoted more than women. Bosses assume a young woman will get pregnant and be on maternity leave for a year or so.
Companies don't realise how much potential they lose by adopting this approach. My companies have always benefitted from a diverse boardroom. We have always had more women than men in management which I believe gives us an advantage, because women see things from a different perspective than men. The decisions are more balanced.
A neurobiologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands found that when under stress, men become more eager to take risks. When their heart rates and cortisol levels run high, men take bigger gambles than they would normally. Put most women in the same stressful situation, bump up their cortisol levels and ask them to make the same decision and you’ll see something rather different. Rather than falling apart, women tend to become risk-alert under stress and go for the smaller wins that are more guaranteed.
A lot of research shows that when women face a decision, they tend to begin by collecting data and taking the interest of multiple stakeholders into account to make fair and moral decisions. They collaborate well. When men face a difficult decision, they often think they are being asked for a plan of action. Men love to generate solutions. Women enjoy sharing the exploration of relevant concerns.
When we put men's and women's strengths together, great solutions emerge. So why are so few governments, businesses and institutions taking advantage of this known fact? Diversity gives strength.
The balance is definitely getting better but there is still a long way to go. These days having women in leadership is no longer just the right thing, but also the smart thing to do.
- Written by Anna Bastek: multi-award winning entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, owner of Wolfestone, VoiceBox and Robertson Languages International, Welsh Government Dynamo Role Model, Ironman triathlete, traveller.