Women have come a long way in the corporate world in recent years, which is something to celebrate.
A UK government report released last fall shows the number of women on FTSE 100 company boards increased to 26.1 percent as of October 2015, more than double from 12.5 percent in February 2011.
These companies met the voluntary target of 25 percent female board representation, which has since been replaced by a new target of 33 percent among FTSE 350 firms by 2020.
“There remains more to do, further challenges and opportunities ahead,” states the report titled, Improving the Gender Balance on British Boards, authored by former trade minister Lord Mervyn Davies.
He describes the lack of gender diversity on British boards as a “a key business issue” that for too long was “narrowly boxed by many as an equalities, diversity or women’s issue.”
Putting women in executive positions isn’t just the right thing to do to better reflect society, but also makes good business sense, Davies says.
“Diverse perspectives are prompting better understanding of customers, employees and other stakeholders and bringing changes not just in the boardroom but increasingly down in the organisation.”
A growing number of studies show that greater gender diversity in corporate decision-making roles pays off.
For example, the Global Leadership Forecast 2014/2015 report shows companies that ranked in the top 20 per cent based on financial performance had more than one-third (37 percent) female leadership. That’s in contrast to organisations in the bottom 20 per cent, where less than a fifth (19 percent) of leaders were women, according to the study by Pittsburgh-based human resources consulting firm DDI.
The Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia has also done studies showing female board members are better at protecting shareholder value. One study, which was published in the Journal of Corporate Finance, says the cost of a successful acquisition was reduced by 15.4 percent for each female director added to a board.
“Our findings show that the prudence exhibited by women directors in negotiating mergers and acquisitions has had a substantial positive effect on maintaining firm value,” stated report co-author and Sauder finance professor Kai Li. “This finding adds fire and force to recent calls to mandate a minimum number of women on the boards of publicly traded companies.”
Men must play a role in advancing women in leadership
It’s not just up to women to fight for the corner office. Men in senior leadership positions must also be part of the change in attitudes to help the advancement of women.
“Talented and ambitious women should be given every opportunity to meet their potential,” says Chris Blampied, managing director and head of banking for RBC Wealth Management International, based in Jersey in the British Isles.
“Selfishly, we also don’t want to lose these women to other organizations,” he says. “When you can find a women who has the talent and ambition to get into senior management, we need to cherish it.”
Blampied says removing so-called “unconscious bias” — where women may be considered less competent leaders because they are different than men — has been a focus at RBC in recent years. He says RBC has been working to break these “stereotypical viewpoints” through training and education.
“We need to ensure that we don’t have glass ceilings and to ensure that we’ve got enough tools in place to enable women to rise through the organization and achieve positions at the senior management level,” Blampied says.
That includes helping empower women to push for senior positions.
“Women in senior management roles need to make sure they have the confidence so they don’t deselect themselves from those opportunities,” says Blampied, who leads the RBC Wealth Management International Women in Leadership Work Group.
The group’s agenda is to achieve more gender balance in key roles across the bank. Blampied was recently awarded a bronze in the “Champion of the Year: Mentoring/Sponsorship Programmes” category at the Citywealth Power Women Awards 2016 in London for his work on programs helping to advance women in the workplace.
Other Power Women Awards winners from RBC included Gail McCourt, head of client experience at RBC Wealth Management International, based in Jersey, who received a gold in the “Woman of the Year: Business Services” category. Liz le Poidevin, client services director at RBC Trust Company (International) in Jersey, received a silver in the “Woman of the Year: Leadership (Financial Organisation)” category.
McCourt, who is past chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Group at RBC and currently leads the bank’s People with Disabilities Work Group, believes strongly in building a more diverse group of employees at RBC, and empowering them to rise through the ranks.
Her goal is to get colleagues thinking ahead about what they want from career, and not let stereotypes of what a leader should look or act like stand in their way.
“I encourage colleagues to think about their long-term career aspirations and how to support that,” McCourt says.
That includes giving women the space to openly discuss barriers they may believe disqualify them from taking on more senior roles, such as having kids, caring for aging parents, or not belonging to the so-called “old boys’ network.”
It’s a lack of confidence that can often hold women back, McCourt says.
She also encourages managers to support and mentor women to come out of their own comfort zones, to help them develop. That includes showing them there are different leadership styles, all of which can be successful.
“It comes back to inclusiveness of opportunity,” McCourt says.
She also recommends women be “authentic” in their leadership style and pursue promotions “in their own way, in a way they feel comfortable.”
McCourt says she has male and female mentors who consistently challenge her to aspire to new roles, and force her to consider roles she may not have thought were a fit.
“They’ve been encouraging voices who have held me accountable and also put my feet to the fire saying ‘what should you do next?’” says McCourt.
There is still ‘substantial work to be done’
McCourt considers herself lucky, recognizing that not enough is being done to increase the number of women in leadership position at companies across various sectors, including financial services.
According to the most recent survey from Catalyst, women currently hold four percent or 20 of the CEO position at S&P 500 companies. A Morningstar study released in 2015 shows that less than 10 percent of all U.S. fund managers are women. The report also showed that women exclusively run about two percent of the industry’s assets and open-end funds, compared to 74 per cent that are exclusively run by men.
While there are more women on FTSE 350 boards than ever before, the achievement is “just the first step in an important journey,” states Melanie Richards, Vice Chairman, KPMG in the UK in the Davies report.
“There remains substantial work to be done,” Richards says, noting that the business community “must continue our focus on gender and look at the true diversity of those leading our businesses” to remain relevant to clients and communities and to be globally competitive.
“Without these different outlooks and diversity of skills and experiences, our businesses will simply not thrive in this fast paced changing competitive world,” Richards says, calling inclusion a “pivotally important” item on her company’s agenda, and others in the UK and worldwide.