Take risks on International Women’s Day

Let me start by stating unequivocally that attitudes towards women at work have changed dramatically for the better over the last few decades.  The days when women were routinely dismissed simply for raising a family have, thankfully, long gone.  But are we now at a stage where women don’t have to worry about being overlooked for jobs or promotions simply because of their sex?  Not quite, but I’d argue that the advances of the last few decades mean that it’s now more difficult to climb those last few hundred steps towards the summit of true equality.

Not many would deny that, in general, it’s easier today for women to get on the career ladder and progress.  But, and it’s a fairly big but, there are still areas of concern – those last hundred steps still have to be made.  For example, I have a friend who works in finance and she told me how, initially, she could see how male colleagues were careful in their use of language (what they would call banter) around her.  I don’t think her experience is uncommon.  It’s still, in my view, harder for women to get the necessary degree of respect that perhaps comes more easily for a man.

Extrapolate this to the wider stage and we see that men are far more likely to put themselves forward for promotion to management roles than women. Partly, this might seem down to innate differences in women’s attitudes to themselves compared to men’s, with studies showing that women rarely apply for promotions if they don’t have 100% or close to 100% of the skills listed for the job. In contrast, men will apply if they have only 60% of the skills.  This may seem like a lack of confidence, but further research revealed that it is because women simply didn’t want to waste a recruiter’s time if they didn’t tick all the boxes for required skills.  Men, on the other hand, were less bothered about this, with only 8% of men counting themselves out on the basis of the requirements of the job. Put simply, men were more likely to take the risk.

Or take this 2019 study, where people were asked to rank candidates based on their CVs.   Both past successes and future potential were noted, but participants consistently ranked male candidates highly if they focused on their potential. For female candidates the opposite was true.  It looks as if women are simultaneously being held to higher standards whilst holding themselves to a higher standard.  Yet another study suggests women tend to undersell their work, rating their performance as 33% lower than their equally performing male colleagues. Female managers are seemingly also more likely to lack self-belief, and less likely to expect to reach director level by the end of their careers.  Is (a lack of) confidence, compared to men, part of the problem for some women – or is it still unconscious discrimination – or a bit of both?

Some light might be shown on these questions by a 2021 study of 3,000 UK adults, which found that not only are men more inclined to ask for a pay rise than women, but they also tend to receive a larger sum if that rise is granted. That latter fact smacks of discrimination to me. The same survey showed that 43% of men have asked for a promotion during their career, whereas only 30% of women have done so.  It appears that it’s men’s willingness to take a risk by asking for more money and/or a better job that is at the heart of the matter. Yes, as I have noted, things are much better than they were, and many more women are making unexceptional demands for parity, but as things stand just now the end result is still higher earnings for men and the maintenance, if not widening, of the gender pay gap.

I don’t pretend there are easy solutions to these problems, nor that I have the answer, but I would like to suggest that there is one thing that women can do to help address them.  To illustrate this, I’d like you to consider one area where women have had arguably more success than men in recent years: football.

The growth in the women’s game has been phenomenal.  The success of the England Lionesses in winning the Euro 2022 championship has been rightly lauded across the country. To the chagrin of some, the men’s international team has not been able to achieve such success for many decades, despite the fact that the British Isles is the place where football was invented, codified and developed.

Our women footballers, like the men, are supreme athletes, but (also like the men) have endured disappointments and failures.  Like women in business, they were at one time shunned and, in 1921, effectively banned by football’s male-dominated hierarchy.

How things have changed?  How things have changed! Success involved perseverance, training (learning from mentors), a (vital) groundswell of support in the popular media, building skills, knowledge and experience and, of course, a willingness to take risks at critical times to overcome the opposition – on and off the pitch. But in sport, as in business, there are critical moments when, instead of opting for the safe response, someone tries something different – and turns the game on its head and wins for their team. As a result, thousands of young girls are encouraged to see football as not just a fun way to exercise, but also as a career. Our challenge as women is to ask ourselves how can we replicate this in business, where female leaders are arguably not so visible as they are in women’s football.

We have achieved a lot for women in business, but we are still held back by not taking the risks that men seem more willing to take. Being prepared to put ourselves forward for promotion, despite seemingly not ticking all the boxes; asking for pay rises; seeking female mentors rather than male; not just showing potential but delivering it.  These, and many more, are risks we need to take.

To conclude: lots of boxes are now ticked and we have undoubtedly come a long way from the 1960s and ‘70s when women were found in stereotypically ‘female’ jobs.  To return to my original metaphor of reaching the summit, we’ve ascended a long way from base camp.  But like the women footballers found, those last 100 feet before you get to the top are the most difficult.   If, like them, you want to get there then perhaps it’s time to take more risks…?