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Gender Equality

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Business’s greatest untapped resource: Women

Fiona Dawson

08 Mar 2018

Companies must affect positive change early on to continue to retain talented women and clear the path to leadership.

 Fiona Dawson, Global President of Mars Food, Drinks and Multisales at Mars, Incorporated

Photo courtesy of Mars, Incorporated

Women occupy just 15 percent of board seats worldwide. In the US, women account for just five percent of all CEOs among S&P 500 companies. In the UK the situation is worse: in 2016 there were more male CEOs named David (eight) than women CEOs (six) in the FTSE 100.

These figures make for uncomfortable reading for men and women alike, but we have two choices in the face of this harsh reality – we can either feel discouraged by the lack of progress and downbeat about the prospects for women in the workplace. Or, we can allow this data to fuel women’s rise to the top and help drive the change that is needed at the higher echelons of business.

We need to fill the pipeline of female leaders fast. The question is – how?

A new report ‘Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals’, from WomenRising2030 – a new initiative launched by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission – shows that women’s leadership in business is critical to driving significant economic opportunities and driving better performance.

Even more, the report argues that women’s leadership is key to delivering broader, long-term benefits for society and the environment, driving achievements of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – a set of 17 objectives to end hunger, poverty, and inequality, and effectively tackle climate change and resource degradation by 2030.

Without gender equality, male-dominated companies risk losing out on significant opportunities linked to sustainability.

Gender equality in the workplace can help unlock more than US$12 trillion in new market value that could be available to companies that create sustainable business models.

There is evidence that businesses with more women in high-level management positions, particularly on directorial boards, are better able to shift their business’s focus from maximising short-term profit to achieving longer-term growth goals. Research also shows that companies with more women on their boards are more likely to invest in renewable power generation, low-carbon products and energy efficiency. They are thinking of the long-term success of the business and enabling the companies they run to be around for generations to come.

But the climb to the top does not happen overnight. If we want to see more women at the top, we need to first fix the ‘leaky’ pipeline.

Data from the UK shows that 73% of entry-level roles are occupied by women, yet this only translates into 34% of female managers, directors and senior officials. Why is business losing talented women?

I firmly believe that women represent the most powerful untapped resource we have. Despite improvements in regulations and legislation, the proportion of women making it to senior roles is still low. To fix the leak in our pipeline, we need stronger interventions at a business enterprise level to change workplaces and organisational cultures, and these changes must be led from the top.

Mars partnered with the UK Women’s Business Council last year to create ‘The Pipeline Effect’, a toolkit for enabling gender parity beyond middle management. We identified three key obstacles to women’s progress:

  1. A lack of role models
  2. The need for more dynamic and flexible working
  3. A lack of good line management

As managers, we need to ensure we are having authentic conversations with women about what’s important to them, both in their career and in their home life. Only then can we start to unlock individual routes to success and work out tailored career paths and opportunities. Good managers make it a personal responsibility to have authentic conversations.

In 1999, I was asked to move to the Netherlands as Sales and Marketing Director.  I felt very torn.  I had been married a few years and was thinking of starting a family but equally I was excited by the new role, and the opportunity for us to have an adventure abroad. I couldn’t see how I could match furthering my career with hopefully having children.

Thankfully it was a chance conversation with the European President of our business which allowed me to express my fears.  His words of reassurance gave me the confidence to take the job, and allowed me to realise how potentially self-limiting my beliefs had been.

I’ve learned first-hand that if we have a boss or an environment that’s negative, where we can’t have those conversations, it will drive everyone undercover. Where the environment is positive, there’s a ripple effect.

Companies must affect positive change early on to continue to retain talented women and clear the path to leadership. Sometimes, that can start with a conversation. Creating gender-balanced leadership teams is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do, particularly as we try to make our businesses more sustainable.

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