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Are women being held back in their careers?

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What will it take to ensure females are properly represented at senior levels? Bridget McIntyre, the former CEO of Royal Sun Alliance, outlines her views.

1. What is the main barrier to women’s career development?

If you had to choose one, it would be organisations and women investing time in the right kind of development. I’ve found that choosing training and support that is appropriate for women can make a huge difference. I didn’t always think this, but over time I’ve become more and more aware of what can be achieved by developing truly female-specific training. 

2. What is the main thing holding women back in their careers?

There is always the obvious answer, which is ‘family commitments’ – pregnancy and maternity leave, looking after elderly relatives etc. – however the one I have noticed, which is perhaps not so obvious, is the lack of self-belief in today’s career women.  I include myself in this because both for myself and for the women I coach, it is a lack of self-belief and confidence that I have found can really hold us back.

In my career, it took me a long time to step away from my original role in finance and move to a broader one. Yet, by gaining more confidence in my professional background I have reached this goal. Coaching particularly helped me step back and appreciate what qualities I can bring to a broader business role and this was a large part of overcoming this very personal challenge. 

3. What are your top tips to women who want to progress their careers quickly?

Take risks! Nothing will come easily, so you need to be prepared to face your fears and do something totally out of your comfort zone. This might involve taking a new role in a brand new company or by taking on a new challenge within the company you are already part of.

Be purposeful and intentional about your career. By this I mean spend time thinking and making sure that you complete any career moves, knowingly. So many of the women I coach have just ‘ended up’ where they are ‘just because’. If you want to progress quickly, then you need to take the bull by the horns and take action yourself.

Keep learning and spend time on your personal development. For me, a personal coach made a big difference. It was someone who kept-on supporting me, they kept me on track and also helped me to face and overcome challenges as and when they came up.

4. Why is an NED appointment such a fundamental part of career progression?

It’s a big transition from executive to non-executive and it can be difficult for many to make the jump. While I wouldn’t call NED roles a ‘fundamental part’ of a women’s career – as some people may not choose not to go for it – I do understand why many do make the decision to go for a that role. That said, there are other options to choose from; these include advisory roles, consultancy work or even a part time position.  What is fundamental, however, is to ensure that women make the best decision for them; it’s about how you use your wisdom and experience and choose a route that is right for you. 

5. What’s your advice to headhunters and those making the decisions on hiring - there is so much discussion around women and diversity yet the dial is not moving very far. Why is this and what can be done to change it?

For the dial to really move, there needs to be a change in attitude from both companies and head-hunters. With this in mind, I make the following pleas for change:  

Headhunters - widen the pool

There is a lot of talent out there, many of whom could be fantastic in a range of roles. Spend time getting to know us, think outside the box and don’t overlook candidates because they don’t yet fall into the right ‘circles’ or stereotypes.  Help us understand how our experience is relevant and help us shape the route we take to achieve our goals.

Companies - embrace the diversity ‘quota’

As the recent Davies Report underlines, board diversity enhances board performance – it’s a proven fact. Quotas are there to implement change, so explore the talent available, pick the very best talent for your needs and avoid selecting representation for selection’s sake. There are many ways to consider the mix of skill and diversity on your board and it really is worth the effort to do it.

Women - persevere!

To all those making that leap into a NED role, but aren’t getting very far, don’t get disheartened. Change takes time, but in the meantime work with people that understand you and never take no for an answer. Make your experience relevant and ensure your CV captures your broader experience and make clear the contribution you can make to the business. And most of all have self-belief. 

6. Do you think there’s a responsibility on women themselves to step up or is there a fundamental flaw in hiring processes? What are your expectations for the future?

While there is no doubt women need to be more proactive and have the self belief and understanding to achieve the roles they want, an interview is a two way process. It's true that companies need to be more open-minded but women also need to play to their strengths; we work at our best when we are being natural and not focussing on being something we are not, so we need to ensure we don’t fall into the trap of acting like someone a company is looking for, but instead, being true to ourselves. Getting the right company fit is also important; to help achieve this, women too should be ‘interviewing’ companies, to check they are a right fit for them at the interview stage.

In terms of my expectations for the future, I would certainly like to see more women in senior roles. While I don’t want a ‘domination of women’, I do want to see diversity at board-level as this is what is seriously lacking. A future of this kind, however, will require a big mind-set change by companies, head-hunters and senior management, and it will need to be one which respects the qualities of each individual. There will also need to be a wider understanding and appreciation of what any candidate, male or female, can bring to the mix.

Bridget  McIntyre

By Bridget McIntyre

Bridget McIntyre is the former CEO of Royal Sun Alliance and founder of Dream On, which helps women reach their full potential in the workplace.

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