Inaction is the biggest obstacle to top jobs

A new report from Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission – Sex and Power 2011 – contains a headline-grabbing factoid:

If women were to achieve equal representation among Britain’s 26,000 top positions of power, the Commission estimates that 5,400 ‘missing’ women would rise through the ranks to positions of real influence.

Evening up the balance would take some doing. For example, women, rather than men, would have to occupy 1,232 more of the 3,042 board seats at Britain’s 350 largest companies. In the police, 83 additional female officers would have to replace men to attain gender equilibrium in the 250 positions at the top of the force. And the British armed forces would have to promote 245 more women to the upper ranks (to add to just five, out of 500, already there).  This could be a slow process. Take the police: neither of the obvious female candidates to be the next head of London’s Metropolitan Police has applied for the post. Or the armed forces: as Liz Bolshaw has pointed out, Lieutenant Commander Sarah West has only just been named as the first woman to command a British warship – after 500 years.

The problem with data that show such a divergence between reality and aspiration is that they may either disillusion ambitious women or, worse, imply that their “rise through the ranks” is inevitable. As the commission report suggests, while top women make progress in some sectors (since the last report in 2007-08, the proportion of top female civil servants has increased from 26.6 per cent to 29.9 per cent, for instance), “that progress regularly stalls or even reverses in other sectors”.

It would be unwise to assume that an upward trend will be guaranteed by external measures alone such as regulation, legislation and less formal workplace initiatives. Interestingly, the commission supplies a handful of case study interviews with top leaders – a judge, a corporate financier, a lawyer, a university vice chancellor. They mention the external obstacles to career progress, for sure, but, to a woman, they place heavy emphasis on the need for individual persistence. As Caroline Gipps, vice chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, puts it: “Career development doesn’t just happen”. Or, in the words of Linda Lee, president of the Law Society:

Be realistic in your assessment of your own abilities but go for it! If you experience obstacles or setbacks find another route. It’s not always easy but persistence is key.

Inaction in removing obstacles and changing attitudes to women in power is inexcusable. But another type of inaction could also impede progress. If talented women stop striving towards top jobs, they will continue to be listed as missing in action.

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