The conversation surrounding women in the world of work has been derailed. The simple message of gender equality has somehow been mistranslated and lost in an endless game of Chinese whispers. Women are out of breath, playing catch-up to the discourse of their own lived experience. They watch as this increasingly unfamiliar narrative that demonises ‘feminism’ races further and faster away from their truth and from the reality of being a woman in business. It’s time to set the record straight again.
According to Women Count’s 2022 report, only 1 in 25 CEOs in Britain’s largest publicly listed companies are women. You’re more likely to come across a man named “Steve” or “Stephen” in a position of power than a female CEO. According to analysis conducted by gender and diversity consultancy firm, The Pipeline, out of FTSE 350 listed on the London Stock Exchanges, 96% of CEOs are men, despite entry level recruitment being close to 50:50.
But even the statistics don’t quite highlight the reality of the situation, as they fail to humanise the women affected each and every day.
It’s not simply those already clinging to the greasy corporate pole. It’s the little girls who are taught through society’s language and attitudes that their femininity is what hinders their success. It’s the young women who don’t apply for their dream job because they’re conditioned to believe they’re only worth second place. It’s the women in their thirties who experience subconscious gender-discrimination on the presumptuous basis they “maybe” “might” “one day” have a child. It’s the mature women who are finally freed from harbouring a uterus like a fugitive in the office, only to be mercilessly questioned on their family situation (or lack thereof) until the day they retire.
And the real kicker of the whole situation is the blame doesn’t necessarily fall upon the shoulders of solely one group… even the men. In fact, as CEO of digital commerce platform Stor.ai, Orlee Tal, told Forbes, her male executives often asked “with great surprise – why skilled managers shy away from taking the step up to more senior roles. They assume that the doors are open, but women aren’t taking advantage of available opportunities.” So, if women are seeking opportunity and men aren’t always hindering, what is it that’s still weighing on woman’s success?
In reality, there’s only one antiquated system truly deserving of our blame: the patriarchy (insert dramatic villain music here). Whilst Kim Kardashian’s advice for women in business wasn’t all bad, saying, “Get your f*cking ass up and work”, she negated to remember that most women are trying to do just that. But they must be strong enough to carry layers and layers of ingrained stereotypes and oppression with them. Therefore, of those women who do fight their way to the top, what advice do they have for those of us without a trust fund and a famous family to back every business venture that pops into our brains?
Liv Garfield, chief executive of Severn Trust told the Telegraph back in 2019 that for her it’s about seeing that the route to the top is well trodden, “I’ve had fantastic mentors, and brilliant bosses. I’ve never felt I have a gap or a ceiling to overcome, quite the opposite. But there weren’t many senior female leaders to follow.” Likewise, managing director of John Lewis, Paula Nickolds said, “We have to recognise and address any imbalances because doing so will create stronger teams. I was very lucky to have parents who, from a young age, instilled in their three daughters that they could and should expect to do anything.” Meanwhile, chief executive officer of Ann Summers (Jacqueline Gold), an unequivocal champion of women, reminds women to be passionate and believe in their ability, saying “women tend to play down their successes.”
It seems that the most difficult weight to shake off that the patriarchy has placed on us is self-doubt. Women truly have internalised the idea that traditionally feminine characteristics cannot be synonymous with leadership. Every media depiction of women in power connotes a cold, stern, ruthless woman at its helm, leading out of fear and garnering respect from workers because of this.
When are we going to realise that to be ‘woman’ is to be strong? It’s not about imitating the leadership qualities men possess, or washing away what it means to be feminine. It’s knowing that being a woman is synonymous with strength, intelligence, and confidence when in positions of leadership, as well as sensitivity, cooperation, and compassion. I want to lead with the kindness and love of Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey and the decisiveness and courage of Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly. I want to lead like a woman.