Improving female representation at senior levels

Paula Tinkler takes a closer look at what needs to be done to increase the representation of females at senior levels and what her own experiences have taught her about the issue.

On International Women in Engineering Day 2017, a surprising statistic caught my eye. The proportion of senior roles held by women in UK businesses fell from 21% in 2016 to 19% in 2017. This finding was published in a report by Grant Thornton, which also found that, of the 36 economies surveyed, Britain is among the six countries with the lowest proportion of women in senior roles. 

While there has been a global increase of 1% in the number of females at the top, the fact that the UK - where we would be the first to say that we champion gender equality - has gone backwards, is quite shocking. It's clear to see that, while we are moving in the right direction on the whole, we still need to do more to increase the representation of women at senior levels.

Over the last few years, many ways of solving this problem have been discussed, including having a quota for the number of women included at the board table. However, this kind of enforced policy doesn't fix what is a deep-rooted problem in our society, and that stretches all the way through to how we raise our children.

To address our problem, we have to view this as a long-term project, one that will take a whole generation, maybe more, to come to fruition. Firstly, we need to alter the way that we treat our children, as the 'be a good girl, be a brave boy' conditioning applied at home lays the foundation for attitudes and behaviour in later life. By starting with our own daughters, we can influence the next generation of women to be gutsy young things who aren't afraid to chase after their goals.

At school, there is still a long-standing stigma placed on STEM subject areas that portrays them as 'male' careers, a notion backed up by the fact that only 15.8% of engineering and technology graduates in the UK are female, as reported by the Women's Engineering Society. This is an issue that is close to my heart, having trained in STEM subjects in my own career. I've seen first-hand the fantastic opportunities that await females that do pursue this route.

I was one of the lucky few. I had some inspiring teachers and mentors who encouraged me along the way, as well as the right opportunities that inspired me. However, I sometimes wonder about the promising female minds who pass STEM-related careers by, and all those who could have found their way to the top of the field. Our country's education system needs to invest in talented teachers and role models to inspire the next generation of women in STEM subjects, as well as give them the opportunity to study and progress without feeling like they're trespassing in a 'male' field.

Beyond childhood and school, we need to give women the support and space they need to flourish in both further education and the workplace. By giving them leadership challenges early on, we can show them that it's natural to take the first step forward and have others follow your example. We can also offer them the chance to participate in projects that are visible to those responsible for promotions, so they can show they are capable. It also goes without saying that women require flexibility to start a family and not have it hamper their career prospects. It should never be a choice between their job and children and it's up to employers to uphold this.

More responsibility also falls to businesses when recruiting. During the interview process, it's important to keep an open mind when considering candidates of both genders. Businesses should prepare to see males present the best parts of themselves, while women talk about their weaknesses before their strengths. You might have two equally suitable applicants for the job, but the way each person communicates can often cloud judgement. Instead of making an immediate decision, take the opportunity to really learn about the candidates and what they can offer your company.

I do hope that more women are given the opportunity to progress their careers to the highest level sooner rather than later, and I look forward to reading more hopeful statistics in future industry reports. Gender equality is one of the most important issues in our country, and I'm optimistic that we can work together to achieve it.

Paula Tinkler is the commercial director of Chemoxy.