The ONS has just published data that shows that the difference between what men and women get paid widens as women get older – peaking between 50 and 59.  Peculiarly depressing – and for someone like me – a woman in her early fifties, it’s a double whammy.

The news gets worse – the same survey also found the gender pay gap was entirely in favour of men in every single occupation they covered.

And this news is just the latest insight to hit our consciousness about the huge challenges and hurdles that face all women in the workplace.  We’ve had a slew of revelations about institutionalised sexual abuse in many sectors.  And many more insights published into the challenges women face in being considered for, and winning, leadership roles.

Here in the UK, we’re starting to see the announcements from companies about the gender pay gap data as it applies them.  595 companies have provided data on pay split by gender so far – out of the 9000 who have to declare this information.  Results at this point are depressing – even in organisations where a good proportion of women are in senior roles we often see gross discrimination:  take the BBC for example.

I saw one piece of good news in the data on gender pay from Citigroup, where men and women are largely being paid the same when they carry out equivalent roles.  – I really hope more will emerge but the pattern so far doesn’t give me much hope of this being achieved.

I wonder how many of you in the room now are working on statements that sit alongside the stats for the business you represent?  And how you feel about the disparities that are emerging?  If you see figures that make you uncomfortable do think about how you can question what is happening.  It’s important that we speak out, and ask questions about the inequalities that we see.

It’s important too, that we question the reactions that some of our male colleagues have to these news pieces about discrimination, and about environments where sexual abuse and intimidation are part of the culture.  I’ve picked up various comments from men reacting to that news and sadly, many of them have tried to minimise it, or questioned the motives of those who’ve come forward.  Their views help create a landscape that treats women differently to men and sets us apart. It’s a problem we need to understand, and to try to change if we can, to make our working world a fairer (and more productive) place for us all.

So what does the landscape and culture look like in large businesses, the places where many of us work on a daily basis?

The Hampton-Alexander Report, published last autumn, painted a statistical picture of that world.  In summary, there is still a huge imbalance in most sectors in favour of men.  This has improved at board level in large plcs, but there are still very few women breaking through at executive levels – and little evidence of companies taking steps to change despite the prizes at stake in terms of performance, which are neatly summarised by these performance statistics quoted in a Catalyst report:

In companies where three or more directors are female, over a 4-5 year period:

  • Return on sales outperformed by 84 %
  • Return on invested capital outperformed by 60 %
  • Return on equity – outperformed by 46 %

It’s interesting isn’t it that even with these financial incentives the men aren’t keen to embrace change and take active steps to champion more women to take up leadership roles? It’s clear that it is up to us to take action to ensure that there is change in female representation in business leadership.  We need to understand the culture and structures of the organisations we’re working in and adopt tactics that get us noticed and valued, positioning us for the most senior roles.

I’m going to talk about some of the issues to look out for – the hurdles of various kinds that women need to negotiate to get offered the senior roles.  And if we recognise these barriers, we can start to make plans to deal with them, and find ways past them.  Some of these are issues I’ve come across in the big companies I’ve worked in, some of them are being identified in research into this issue, some have been flagged in the work of Sharon Peake, the principal of a consultancy which specialises in devising strategies to help business organisations minimise these barriers.

  • Women don’t tend to have the same informal sponsorship or mentoring from board members/Exco as men do. They are less likely to ask for this kind of support, or seek it out, and may miss out on the informal networking that is easier for men to engage with – sometimes this involves sports or after hours social occasions that can be harder for women to attend. Women can address this by getting pro-active about winning advocates for their work.
  • Women are not always getting support from their partners, and their families, to build their careers. A recent Bain survey of professional couples asked each of them whether or not they thought their partner would compromise their own career to support an advancement in their own role.  77 per cent of the men said they believed their partner would compromise – do something like move to a new location – to fit in with their advancement at work.  Amongst women 45 per cent gave the same answer.  We need to have some serious conversations at home with our partners to be absolutely clear about how much support they will give us when we need to out our career opportunities first.
  • And a related issue is the way in which we manage household and family related work. There is a lot of data to show that, in families where there are two working parents, the women spends around twice as much time as the man does doing work to keep the house or the family running well – shopping, cooking, cleaning, managing finances, attending school events, organising childcare, booking family holidays….the list is endless. The burden of all this extra work often makes women very efficient – but with all these extra jobs to do they are often very focused on clearing their desks and leaving the workplace in good time.    This can mean that they miss out on opportunities to attend those work related social events, or join the informal conversations that happen after more formal meetings are wrapped up.  It’s at these times that individuals get the chance to make a different kind of impression on their senior colleagues, and grab the attention and active sponsorship of those powerful individuals who can make recommendations that lead to significant promotions.
  • The women who are breaking through into the most senior roles are often functional leaders, rather than those running a business unit. In most commercial organisations, the P & L leadership roles are the most powerful and influential, and functional leads are often – whether we like it or not  – perceived to be less weighty.  Women moving through the ranks in functional roles need to be aware of this, and think about how they can contribute as equals to their colleagues in general management roles.  As most of us here today are functional leaders, we should be thinking about how to make strong contributions in ways that our general management colleagues can see as both strategic, and influencing their bottom line or top line returns.  Where our businesses are putting together cross-group projects to explore challenges such as accelerating innovation, or a business transformation programme, we should step forward to be included in those working groups.  These teams, carrying out crucial strategic projects, often get more profile and time in front of the board, the Exco or other senior leadership platforms.  They are a fantastic way to grow in terms of our own experience and expertise, and also for us to show the leadership just how good we can be, and how much we can add to these critical pieces of work.
  • Have an elevator pitch. I developed a method for this, when I was in my first big PLC role.

My boss, our CEO, had a tendency to bounce into my office unannounced, and ask breezily:  “So, what’s going on, Catherine?”.   He’d give me around 70 0r 80 seconds before bouncing right back out again.  Basically, I needed to use all of those 70 seconds to remind him of all the key work I was doing that added value.   The first couple of times he did this, I was caught off guard and always forgot to mention the most important pieces of work I was carrying out.  I developed a habit of keeping a  very short note – I used a post it note stuck on my desk – with a list of bullet points covering every key project I was leading or contributing to.  I used this as a crib sheet to tell him what I was up to.  It’s the sort of trick we all need to have – being ready to talk about our work to the people that count every time we get the chance, and we need to do it really effectively, to make sure that our work is recognised.  When we launch into this little speech about our work, it’s really important to put what we do into the broader business context, show what we are doing to help deliver strategy, what sort of return on investment our work is providing, how its performing when benchmarked against our competitors, what we do to give a business its edge, to create value, to build a differentiated, positive reputation.  It’s really important that we present our work as commercially valuable, and use the right language when we do this too, to make sure we get credit for the work we’re doing, and ensure that we create an appreciation of what we are doing.

I could go on, but I think you’re probably getting the gist of this by now.  We need to look hard at how our organisations work, what they reward, and how we can position ourselves and the work that we are doing to win support for our appointment to the top table. Of course, on top of the specific issues we see in business, we are still battling with societal norms, and with the unconscious biases that exist in our broader society.  And I’d like to add here – please don’t make this just about yourself.  Do think about how your impact, and the insight you are gaining, can help younger, less experienced women in your own organisation.  If we can help our younger colleagues get further up the ladder, we’re helping to create working environments that make more space and time to consider the contribution all women make, and change accordingly.

Sharon Peake, who I mentioned earlier, tells me that if the rise of women in business continues at the rate it is today, it will take another 100 years before there is gender parity at all levels of our organisations.  100 years is too long for me to wait. I think we need to move faster than this.  I hope you’ll all help to make that a real possibility, and put into action some of the ideas we’ve looked at this evening. I look forward to seeing all of the extraordinary talent in this room make the greatest possible impression in the months ahead, and take more of the very top leadership roles yourselves.

WCCN is the Women in Communications Careers Network – a group for women in senior roles in communications, corporate affairs and reputation management.

Catherine May is a company director and executive leadership coach.  She works within the board practice of Stonehaven International, and is Vice-Chair of Stonehaven Campaigns, Senior Independent Director of English National Opera (ENO) and is a director and founding partner of Pop Concepts, a gourmet popcorn business.