Tuesday 13 November 2018 10:04 am

Take note of Ada Lovelace and the gender leadership gap

Who was Ada Lovelace? She could soon be the face of the Bank of England’s new £50 note.

Lovelace – the world’s first computer programmer and collaborator with the celebrated inventor Charles Babbage – is just one of the many women who have historically been under-recognised for their great achievements.

The British public is keenly engaged with the debate on who should appear on our banknotes. After all, nothing could be more symbolic of who and what we place value on in society than those heading up our currency.

The Bank of England is rightly under pressure to ensure fair gender representation among the individuals it profiles on our notes, so that we can all be reminded of the role models who shaped British culture and pioneered our industries.

The problem is that there are so few women who have been recognised for their work. And it’s not just a historic problem – there are still more men called David running FTSE 100 companies than there are women.

While the challenges faced by women in business today are subtler than those faced by Lovelace, they echo the deep-seated issues that have long stymied the ability of women to reach their full potential and receive fair recognition.

Last Saturday’s Equal Pay Day powerfully underlines this inequality. The gender pay gap has remained static at 14.1 per cent for three years.

From the number of women attracted into certain sectors, to the impact that starting a family can have on careers, women face many pressures that can deplete their earning power. Added to this are a range of discretionary factors that are nonetheless open to unconscious bias.

Firms would argue that few roles are measured like-for-like on time or outputs, and pay scales take into account variables like experience, working hours and qualifications. But regardless of the how the gap is measured, to tackle this issue at source we must address the cultural and institutional obstacles preventing women from taking on senior leadership positions.

This starts with fuelling the female talent pipeline within businesses.

There is huge demand from firms to take short-cuts by paying executive search firms to secure high-profile, talented women to enter the business in senior leadership roles.

But internal succession – for example, Robyn Denholm’s promotion to the chair of Tesla last week – is far harder to scrutinise. According to our recent data, only 39 per cent of employees thought that their employer actively engaged in tackling gender diversity. Clearly, not all businesses are willing to spend the time nurturing the talents of their own staff.

No one would disagree with the value that we should be placing on the contribution of women like Ada Lovelace and her modern counterparts. In fact, the vast majority of firms acknowledge the broader significance of tackling gender inequality, with 91 per cent of the employees surveyed by Talent Intelligence saying that their employer viewed gender diversity as important.

Yet these employers and the women they employ will continue to pay the price until companies have their own overt strategy to recognise and reward talented and dedicated staff.