On Thursday 17th March we were honoured to be invited to speak at a Simply Business event on Empowering Women in Business, alongside Baroness Karren Brady. It was a wonderfully inspiring day, and we were so pleased to be a part of it.

I have a huge amount of admiration for Karren Brady – truly a woman in a man’s world, who took on the, often toxic, football industry and continues to win (2-0 against Sevilla, most recently, on the day of our event in fact). It was a real pleasure to hear her speak about the qualities women need to succeed in business, and her philosophy of kicking open the door and then holding it open for other women.

Our talk was about why we need more female leaders, and why we don’t currently have them. Here are some of the key points.

What’s the problem?

90% of FTSE 100 CEOs are white men. Women get only 2% of venture capital funding when they start businesses. Women are paid 15% less than their male counterparts in employed roles. Women are working six weeks every year for free.

But we know that businesses are more successful when they’re more diverse.

Diverse and inclusive companies generate:

  • 19% higher innovation
  • 73% better decisions
  • 21% higher profits

We also need more diversity at the top because it encourages diversity throughout the rest of the organisation, and it drives innovation within the wider business community, forcing other organisations to up their game too.

So why don’t we have more female leaders?

I’ve already mentioned that women receive substantially less business funding than men. They also receive less PR attention and have less access to networks to help them grow their business. That puts a fairly major obstacle in the way of female-led businesses succeeding.

For women in employment, there are a number of challenges:

  • Women are 24% less likely to be promoted – rising to 66% if they have children
  • 54,000 women lose their jobs in the UK every year because of pregnancy or maternity discrimination
  • Women are more likely to be forced to work part-time because women are still doing 70% of the domestic and care work at home
  • 64% of older women will face age discrimination that limits their careers

Not only that, but society teaches us from an insanely early age that women are not leaders. We are bombarded with messages about women’s role in society and what it should be, even children’s TV still pushes very traditional gender roles. When women leaders are discussed in the press, the media mostly focus on their shoes or their hair. How are young women supposed to have confidence in their ability to become a leader?

Then when they get into the workplace, women will be spoken over in meetings 50% of the time, and if they try to negotiate for a fairer salary they will be viewed negatively and risk not getting the job at all (whereas a man negotiating his salary is viewed positively).

So what are we to do?

How can we get ahead?

Most of the advice for women on getting into leadership roles focuses on how they can be more like the typical male leader. But that goes against the whole point. We don’t need more of the same people running businesses, we need different perspectives and ideas, different abilities and different approaches.

So don’t try to be like anyone else. We need you to bring your full, authentic self to the table.

Start by understanding your unique strengths and values. Then focus on cultivating them. Look for opportunities to demonstrate your skills and understand the power of your particular way of doing things. Then shout about your successes from the rooftops.

Get really clear on your career goals – where exactly is it that you want to go? Once you have a clear goal, you can create an action plan to help you get there.

Find someone who’s already done it and ask them to be your mentor. Guidance and advice from someone who’s walked the path you’re starting out on can be invaluable, and they can also introduce you to their networks and open some vital doors for you.

Joining networks, especially those aimed at people in similar life situations to you, can be very powerful. So much of success in business is still who you know, so building connections is one of the most important things you can do. Being able to ask for advice, share challenges and access support and cheer-leading will also lift you up, especially when the going gets tough.

When you do find yourself doing well, don’t forget about those that are coming behind you. We have a responsibility to help one another. If you can support another woman’s business, amplify another woman’s voice on social media, reinforce the point of a female colleague who’s being spoken over in a meeting or invite a woman to speak at your event, do it. Helping to raise up and give a platform to other women, especially women from more marginalised identities, is how we fight against the current system. We are stronger together.

But it can’t all be on us

We can’t put all the responsibility on women to fix the broken system that keeps women down.

We need genuine systemic change across society in order to create a world that works for everyone.

Some changes that would benefit women in the workplace include:

  • Consequences for gender pay gaps – the reporting is great, but businesses record their huge gap and then just carry on; there needs to be consequences to make them do something about it
  • An end to salary secrecy – we’ve been campaigning for all job ads to #SayThePay because we know that salary secrecy widens pay gaps and harms businesses
  • Compensation for unpaid labour – we need to value domestic and care work, and reward it accordingly, to reduce the workload imbalances that exist in our society
  • Flexible working by default – if there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that flexible working works and should be the default way of working so that more people can participate more widely in the workplace
  • Affordable, sustainable childcare – the childcare system in the UK is a mess, and a huge overhaul is needed (the charity Pregnant Then Screwed have been campaigning extensively for a government review of the UK childcare system, which so far the government have rejected, but we keep fighting)
  • Genuine commitment from businesses to challenging bias – no lip-service and cute #IWD memes, real change, meaningful action and a recognition of the business benefits, and need, to do so

There is a long, long way to go, and sometimes it can feel like a mountain to climb. But we can, will, and must, close the gaps in business leadership.

If you want to travel with others along this journey, join The Sp_ce on Facebook to get access to a community of supportive fellow travellers, as well as resources and tools from us!