Time to Act on Women in Leadership

Time to Act on Women in Leadership

In recent weeks we’ve had several causes for celebration for anyone who cares about getting more women in to business leadership.


Rona Fairhead speaking at our Annual Lecture 2013

"UK plc needs more women in the boardroom and on management teams. And they should be running departments, being finance directors, entering graduate programmes, and studying engineering at university and physics at school."

Not only did George Osborne announce a campaign, of which we are a part, to double the proportion of women taking engineering and technology degrees by 2030, we also had news that every FTSE100 manufacturing business now has at least one woman on their board.

But as it becomes increasingly clear that the health of UK industry depends on getting talented women into top roles, we need to turn this trickle of good news into a torrent and that means every educator, politician and business in the country making it a priority. By happy coincidence, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) also launched our Women in Leadership Group last week. Chaired by Rona Fairhead, who currently sits on the boards of PepsiCo, HSBC Holdings and the Economist, and with senior women from ten different sectors as well as female Vice-Chancellors, it is exploring how we can finally have a coordinated cross-sector and pan-government approach to women in leadership positions.

The mood of the room was pretty clear: we need fewer, bolder actions to drive this agenda. So what can we do to make sure we aren’t still celebrating small victories in another 15 years as we near a third of the way through the 21st century?

Everyone agreed that mentors were vital, but there was less consensus on quotas. If things don’t change faster, we may need to be more prescriptive to force progress.  And on targets, it depends on how sophisticated they are.

"Now is the time to bring together senior female business and academic leaders, and in the longer run schoolteachers and policy makers, to review the vital connections between education, personal development, business culture and leadership."

If you target and measure the wrong things, you end up with skewed policies and unintended consequences.  Even with terrific and progressive ideas, such as the 30% Club aimed at bringing more women into boardrooms, there would be a problem if it simply shifted talented women already in executive positions onto boards. UK plc needs more women in the boardroom and on management teams. And they should be running departments, being finance directors, entering graduate programmes, and studying engineering at university and physics at school.

The best way to address these problems is to look at the pathways that talented people take in developing their careers, and the way in which they are developed by employers.  As a template, I look to the success of UK Sport who have a remarkable recent record of identifying and nurturing talent and guiding it to the very top - including the likes of Helen Glover who won Olympic Rowing Gold just four years after joining a UK Sport programme and Lizzie Yarnold who won Skeleton Gold at the Sochi Olympics just five years after trying the sport for the first time.  

UK Sport have a four-fold approach that involves creating coaches who can identify talent, constant comparison to the world’s best performers, innovative research to better understand the route to success, and the use of the latest technology to gain that extra edge.

In a globally competitive world this unrelenting ambition to be the best, and a dedication to identifying and nurturing talent in those who might not even realise they have it, is the only way to ensure we’re ready for the future. Now is the time to bring together senior female business and academic leaders, and in the longer run schoolteachers and policy makers, to review the vital connections between education, personal development, business culture and leadership. The 21st century is well under way and the UK can’t afford to wait until it’s half over before we get the pathways in place to make sure talented women are consistently making it into every area of business leadership.

What do you think? Tweet us @NCUBtweets or comment below

Other posts that may interest you:

PRESS RELEASE: NCUB joins government campaign for greater STEM participation among women
NEWS: NCUB Holds Women in Leadership Breakfasts
REPORT: Great Expectations: Top Manufacturing and Engineering Talent 2030
REPORT: Target 2030
BLOG: How Talent 2030 can engineer a new generation

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