It’s been an interesting week for British women. Not only has the Church of England voted to allow women to become bishops for the first time in its history, David Cameron’s reshuffle has doubled the number of women in Cabinet to eight.
This has seen an influx of articles that insist progress is forging new pathways like never before, yet others that argue change is still desperately needed and, in a way, they’re both right.
Which isn’t surprising when you consider that gender equality is a topic that remains high on the news agenda – inextricably connected to issues of diversity and leadership – and that’s why the headlines this week were littered with “women bishops” and “women MPs”. Headlines like these simply won’t stop being front page news while female representation remains so low.
Essentially, the issue here stems from the lack of women in leadership.
Take the role of a bishop – it’s a position of authority – one that a woman was previously unable to hold. The latest vote gave approval to legislation that introduced a change to the tradition of exclusively male bishops, therefore enabling women to reach higher levels of leadership within the church.
And when we look at the reshuffle, the Prime Minister has boosted a number of women into the Cabinet and the upper levels of political leadership. Changes include Nicky Morgan replacing Michael Gove as Education Secretary and Liz Truss arriving as Environment Secretary – the latter will be the youngest-ever female Cabinet member.
These encouraging signs are happening in other sectors too. On the business education front, there are programmes supporting women in management – such as ‘Women Transforming Leadership’ at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford – and there are grants, awards and scholarships for women at various schools, including ESMT European School of Management and Technology (Germany), HEC Paris (France), Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University (Canada), EMLYON (France) and many more across the globe.
As well as this, business schools are producing research that looks into women in the workplace. Take Desautels, where Professor Lisa Cohen produced a study that found women are more likely to reach high level roles within companies if there is already a high proportion of female managers there. It’s research like this that examines the world today and identifies the changes that need to be made.
Vickie Collinge comments that the recruitment and HR sphere has long been fighting this diversity struggle, but not always for the right reasons.
She says: “The need for a greater mix and balance of professionals has been widely recognised as a strategic imperative for organisations that want to attract the best global talent that will better support organisational growth. However, the challenge is that very few are clear as to how true diversity can be achieved.
“There are too many examples of businesses focusing on numbers when looking to achieve a truly balanced workforce, but this can in fact damage diversity aims. The EU debate on creating targets for women on boards is a good example. While the argument can be made that setting strict rules on gender balance in an organisation’s senior team could drive change, if the culture of the company doesn’t also alter to appeal more and embrace women, it’s highly likely that these individuals will bounce off the establishment wall.
“Indeed our client Cielo has long been vocal on the fact diversity is not a numbers game and quotas will in fact have a negative impact on the desired outcome. If the business arena is to truly be balanced the solution is in creating a culture that is conducive to diversity.”
It’s easy to see that change is happening, but there’s certainly more to come – these issues are everywhere. This month’s edition of Management Today features 35 women under 35 – the front page reads “Unstoppable. On their way to the top – meet the bosses of tomorrow”. I just hope they’re right.