How to get more women to the very top of the business world

Helen Brand
A closer look at gender balance in the upper echelons of the business world shows why we need International Women's Day (Source: Getty)

This International Women’s Day, I have been thinking about why – after so many years of discussion – we still need an “international day” to commit to working towards gender equality.

As a female chief executive of a global professional body, I am unusual and most of my peers are men. ACCA has helped buck this trend over the years: we admitted the profession’s first female back in 1909 and we continue to work more than one day a year to promote diversity in the accountancy profession.

However, a closer look at gender balance in the upper echelons of the business world shows why we need this day: there is certainly still a lack of women in senior management. Women remain under-represented among chief executives, chief financial officers and senior management teams of large listed companies. The FTSE 100 has just seven female chief executives. Looking at wider senior management teams, women represent only a quarter of those sitting on FTSE 100 executive committees – this is a worryingly small proportion for the pipeline of up-and-coming leaders.

Recently, ACCA undertook a global survey of more than 18,000 under 35s, or “generation next”, in accounting and finance. We found that young women in the finance industry have virtually the same career aspirations and expectations as men.

In fact, the research found that young women are more likely to show loyalty to their current employer and to envision a future where they climb the ladder within the same company. With almost half (47 per cent) of young women in accounting and finance saying they intend to pursue a long career in the sector (compared to 40 per cent of men), and 42 per cent saying they want to stay with their current employer in their next role (compared to 37 per cent of men), this coming generation of “company women” has the potential to be an invaluable resource for UK plc.

So why aren’t women making it to the top? Research on the topic broadly concludes that capable women in the workplace are less likely to put themselves forward for opportunities than talented men. This is only part of the problem though: and any solution will be a result of commitment from employers to change, as well as a general shift in societal attitudes.

Fixing the problem: what can companies do?

I have been ACCA’s chief executive for eight years now and, in that time, I’ve seen gender diversity flourish as a result of some fairly simple, but effective, measures. Our leadership is gender-diverse – more than half of our global leadership are female – and it helps us to make informed decisions that open up our profession to women around the world. More than half (54 per cent) of our students are now female, as are almost half (46 per cent) of our members: a proportion that has been growing steadily year on year.

Employers absolutely need to lead the way in creating a workplace environment where gender diversity is encouraged. Flexible working policies can help, but I think it’s important that they are not gender-specific. If workplaces can make flexibility accessible to all employees, rather than communicating flexibility as an extension of maternity policy, parents of both genders may find it easier to more equally balance the amount of time spent at work and at home between them.

From an accountability perspective, I think companies should disclose more information on gender and overall diversity in their annual reports. At ACCA we voluntarily disclose gender balance within our leadership and governance and we intend to provide this type of information at all levels in the future.

Quotas may, in some circumstances, be a useful tool but they are also a blunt one. Lack of diversity may result from an organisation’s culture – so the issue would need to be changed as part of a cultural overhaul affecting all levels of seniority, rather than just at the top. But if we keep talking about the issue, and are just not seeing cultural change, then perhaps the solution needs to integrate both.

Stepping up

There are so many gifted female executives: I know as I work with lots of them on a daily basis. But until we see more of them rising to the top, we need to provide female talent with advice and support on stepping up and reaching that highest level. Here’s a few of the things that I’ve learned throughout my career:

Don’t think that there is one way to lead – there are many. You can have leadership potential without sharing the traits of other leaders that you’ve observed, and never feel pressured into changing your style to be more of a typical “leader”. If you are authentic, it will engage your workforce and your stakeholders.

Look out for role models. As you journey up the career ladder, look out for women whose progress you find inspiring and use their example to spur you on. When I joined ACCA in 1996, our chief executive was strong, admirable and female. I never saw my gender or my personal life as a barrier to reaching the top – I could see that it was doable.

Explore leadership opportunities. Leadership roles aren’t just found in the workplace. It’s worth seeking an oversight role early, and using it to practise your leadership skills. For example, if you start volunteering as a school governor, you can then use your leadership experience to progress to boards and forums. Boards need more diversity, and research has shown that the more different perspectives an organisation has, the better the decisions it takes.

Children aren’t the only reason for flexible working. Flexibility shouldn’t be a gendered policy. I encourage employees of both genders to request flexible hours to pursue commitments and interests outside of work, whether that be family life, volunteering or entrepreneurial pursuits. Research shows employees stay with their organisations longer if they’re more satisfied in their roles – and a well-rounded individual who has a positive social impact is likely to be a more valuable employee too.

I hope that, come next International Women’s Day, we have seen notable improvement in the representation of women in business. We have been talking about this for too long, and it is time for change. It’s also time for us to broaden the conversation and to work towards inclusivity in the widest sense – not gender alone – so we make the absolute most of all the varied talent in our workforces.

Helen Brand is chief executive of ACCA.

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