Written by Joanne O'Connor, November 2008
Despite more legislation protecting women's rights, their progress into management has been disappointingly slow. It’s bad enough that only 39% of fast track graduate recruits in 2007 were women, according to figures from the Association of Graduate Recruiters. But the infamous glass ceiling means that just 11% of the directors of the top 100 companies are female.
Whether it's concern about stepping off the corporate ladder to start a family or receiving an average 20% less salary than men, the obstacles are still in place to stop women rising to the top. 'Women know about the gender pay gap and tend to feel they're not going to succeed at the same level as men,' says Patricia Peter of the Institute of Directors.
Maggie Berry, director of Women in Technology, agrees there are challenges to overcome but adds that women are in a much better position than ever before to reach the top.
Powerpoint to the people!
'There are challenges which women need to work through, especially in industries like IT, which are fairly male dominated. Some women can feel isolated and may struggle to adapt to the environment,' she explains.
'There's also the issue of the "motherhood penalty". Many women find themselves overlooked in their jobs after having children and as one of our members commented, "no-one will ever admit it, but you get to a certain age, and no one will promote you for fear of going on maternity leave".'
Loss of confidence upon returning to work can be a problem too. After nine months of maternity leave, Maggie says that many women feel unable to re-join the work environment because they have missed out on new developments, training and networking opportunities.
So how do women overcome these challenges? 'Simple schemes like women's groups and networks are a great way of sharing experiences and building solidarity, and mentoring has also proved to be a highly valuable tool in many businesses,' says Maggie.
'Companies need to realise the importance of retaining female talent and think about offering training and flexible working practices, which more and more organisations are now doing. Women also need to look at developing their skill sets to arm them with the tools they need to reach the top.'
Liz Benson studied Production Engineering at the University of Nottingham. When she graduated she joined Ford as a Systems Analyst. Here she progressed on to Project Manager.
Now the Chief Operating Officer for Capgemini's Technology Services business, Liz is responsible for 1,700 people and over £200m of revenue. She says it's important that women 'know their own strengths and aren't afraid to play to them.
'You don't have to be tough and macho. There are many other strategies for influencing decisions and outcomes,' she adds.
Liz says it's also important to build relationships. 'You never know when someone will be a useful contact or a coach, so keep in touch with people. Be responsive when they contact you and be willing to be flexible.
'There are no direct routes to the top of organisations. You have to sometimes go down or sideways to re-position yourself for a subsequent opportunity.'
Liz has been working for 20 years now and says she's lucky not to have faced discrimination. 'I did have one maternity leave handled very badly, though, and that left a very sour taste in my mouth. Interestingly, it was a female boss who caused the issue.'
It can be tough for women to succeed in a man's world but there are now plenty of support networks in place to empower women to get to the top, both nationally (through the Women in Management Network) and in particular sectors, localities and organisations.
'More and more companies are establishing support networks and groups for their female employees and setting up mentoring too,' Maggie explains. 'Organisations like Women in Technology also offer many networking opportunities and training events for women, which can be really valuable for helping women to boost their career and advance in the business world.'
And, whether you're male or female, to be on top of your game, work experience really is key.
'Get as much experience as you can and have a solid CV to get your career off to a strong start,' adds Maggie. 'Really try to develop networking skills and other skills that aid career development like the ability to handle political situations in the workplace. More importantly, have confidence in yourself and your ability and don't be scared to make yourself heard. Only a lucky few get to the top without any hard work. It's also important to believe that you can achieve and to aim for the top.'
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