The women who do make it to the top will discover that it’s awfully lonely beyond the glass ceiling
It’s International Women’s Day, and around the world men and women will be launching new women’s rights campaigns, or sipping free champagne at women’s day parties, or grumbling to one another that women — and certainly women in the West — should quit moaning and just get on with it.
I for one don’t want to stop complaining, and not only because around the world women aged 15-55 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria, or because in the UK women still earn 15.5% less than men, or because only 22% of British MPs are women. But also because the women who do make it to the top, those who have made their mark in business and joined the ranks of the super-wealthy, will discover that it’s awfully lonely beyond the glass ceiling.
The Forbes Billionaires List, released yesterday, included a record-breaking 104 women billionaires, but they still only make up 8.4% of all billionaires. Does this shortage of super-wealthy women matter? Well yes, because women’s under-representation at the top of the business world also translates into their unequal influence when it comes to high-level decision making.
This year at Davos, for instance, only 17% of delegates were women, and that’s despite new quotas to encourage top companies to send female representatives. When the global leaders at Davos take a break from partying and massaging each others sizeable egos, and devote their attention to solving the world’s problems, it would be good to have a few more women’s voices heard.
The same goes for company boards. Currently women only make up 15% of boards on FTSE companies. Next week Lord Davies will publish his report on introducing quotas to increase female representation on company boards, and he will undoubtedly (and very rightly) argue that greater diversity on boards will benefit companies.
That said, a quota isn’t really going to solve the problem completely. The first persistent worry is that even today, women entering the world of work are treated differently from men. A few months ago I spoke to Susan Hill, head of SCM Financial Planning. When she was an officer in the RAF she was the only female officer on a station of 500, but she was shocked to find that she experienced ‘more resistance and exclusion in the City’ than she did in the Air Force in the 1970s.
Secondly, the modern workplace was designed on the assumption of working fathers and stay-at-home housewives. One of the first tasks for female industry leaders should be to push for reform to make it easier for women to combine raising a family and pursuing a demanding career. State subsidised childcare, more crèches attached to offices, flexi-hours, job shares, and allowing more employees to work from home would all help.
I can think of plenty of reasons for wanting more women make it to the top in business, but for those who doubt that there’s a point to International Women’s Day, the most compelling argument is this: With the world economy stalling, it isn’t just women who’d benefit from a change to the status quo — we’re in desperate need of some fresh ideas.