Forget women at the top, business must work harder to appeal to schoolgirls

Forget women at the top, business must work harder to appeal to schoolgirls

For all the talk of women on boards - or the lack of – Telegraph Jobs’ editor Louisa Peacock argues that the real challenge lies in encouraging school girls to study for a career in industry.

Women's minister Maria Miller yesterday said the workplace was “designed by men for men”.  A headline-grabbing statement, perhaps, and one that will likely infuriate many men who have worked hard to get where they are in business today – but there is some truth to it nevertheless.

As Miller argued in front of a room full of City chairmen, chief executives and headhunters, women are still hampered by inequalities in the workplace. From the prevalent gender pay gap to the lack of female role models and the crippling cost of childcare, women generally have more barriers to the top than men.

She was speaking after an official report showed the drive to get more women on boards of listed companies has stalled . The study by Cranfield School of Management, which monitors the numbers on behalf of Downing Street, showed the number of FTSE100 board appointments going to women has dropped from 44pc to 26pc over the last six months. The number taking up executive board posts has fallen substantially.

Still, suggesting men “designed” it this way is a little off the mark. There’s no doubt the hierarchical nature of most workplaces, coupled with the still prevalent 9-5 “presenteeism” culture, makes it harder for women trying to juggle childcare with careers. Not to mention the ingrained nature of City networking, which still revolves around late nights in the pub, a strip club, or a round of golf. But the idea of all men agreeing in a Mad Men-esque style, to exclude all women from the offset, is somewhat simplistic (see photo). There are deep-rooted societal, cultural and psychological issues at play here, which are far more complex than a headline-grabbing phrase suggests.

More important is to recognise that inequalities exist and to do something about it. It’s not just the City banks and professional services firms that suffer from a lack of women at the top, but other industries, such as engineering, advanced manufacturing and IT, are crying out for more women in all roles, not just at board level. These are the sectors that are the backbone of the UK economy, and yet only 12pc of the wider science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) workforce is made up by women.

Doing something about it goes way beyond calling for headhunters to “cast the net wider”, or even for companies to develop the so-called executive pipeline. The boss of Hewlett Packard, Meg Whitman, only yesterday said she is seeking a new female director because it would be good for the company, and also because “it is the right thing for society”. But she also recognised that companies should work harder to attract girls to study STEM. Industry needs to appeal to girls from a young age, to dispel the myths and societal prejudices that make many of them feel they are not as worthy as men of entering certain professions, or reaching for the top.

Some employers understand this. Shell is piloting a girl-only engineering course for teenagers at a school in Aberdeen, which has led to more girls studying STEM. At the other end of the country, in Bath, a pilot run by Dyson is similarly promising. By jazzing up design and technology lessons, introducing industry-standard machines such as laser scanners and 3D printers, the engineering giant has inspired 30 pupils at Hayesfield Girls School to take D&T as an extra GCSE. At another school, Wellsway, 43 pupils this year are studying D&T following Dyson’s input, compared to 17 last year.

Workplaces may still reflect the “by men, for men” mentality Miller talks about, but Britain’s good employers know that in the race to get ahead, they must change that for good.

This article was originally featured on

Monday, 15 April 2013

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