Commentary, 8 March 2021
The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is ‘Choose to Challenge’.
In February 2021, the fifth and final report from the Hampton–Alexander Review was published. The review began in 2016 and was led by the late and very wonderful Dame Helen Alexander, together with Sir Philip Hampton. The review has resulted in a 50% increase in female directors in FTSE 100 companies and means over a third of all directors on FTSE 350 boards are now women.
Five years ago, when the Hampton–Alexander review was launched, there was, quite rightly, considerable frustration that the number of women on the UK’s top public company boards was not increasing fast enough. Too many companies still had no women at all on their boards.
Helen knew that the most important place for women at the top was to be actually leading and running these companies. However, board membership sends a very powerful signal to those both inside the company and the outside world, as well as influencing and driving change. She also knew that changing board composition could be achieved in five years if the will to change was created.
Helen ‘chose to challenge’ the status quo, although she sadly died before she could see the full results and just how successfully the Hampton–Alexander Review met and exceeded that challenge. As Helen had always intended, the legacy of the review will go on to be building the pipeline for women to move into leadership roles in major companies.
But the work is far from accomplished. Female directors at the UK’s largest financial services firms are paid on average two-thirds less than their male counterparts, according to the latest figures. And the vast majority (86%) of female company directors occupy non-executive roles.
In the military sector as well, there is progress, but still much to do. The Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act (2018) has made progress with helping family cohesion and, indirectly, promoting women in the armed forces. Childcare is available to service personnel thereby helping to attract and retain female and male service personnel with families or aspirations to family life, but also a belief in service.
Yet according to Service Police statistics, over 70% of the victims in cases related to the Sexual Offences Act (2003) in the UK Armed Forces were women, and up to 40% of the registered complaints for bullying involved women, who make up only 11% of the uniformed personnel defending the UK.
And if this is not enough, women leaving military service have a significantly reduced chance of securing appropriate civilian employment, in comparison to their male counterparts.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence launched ‘The Women in Defence Charter’ in 2020 with the objective of improving the gender balance in the defence sector, both public and private. The charter:
- commits organisations to supporting the progression of women into senior roles in the defence sector by focusing on the executive pipeline and the mid-tier level.
- recognises the diversity of the sector and that organisations will have different starting points.
- expects organisations to publicly report on progress to deliver against any internal targets.
- aims to enhance the collective impact of women across defence sector, and improving their overall output.
Many things are better for women in 2021 than they once were, but the workplace culture for far too many women is still very different from that of their male colleagues.
Women’s progress has been severely undermined by the coronavirus pandemic. They have borne far more than their fair share of the economic and social burden.
So why in 2021 are we having to say, quite rightly, ‘Choose to Challenge’?
There are some clear factors at play around the world, such as long-held religious beliefs and cultural behaviours, which in my view need to be challenged. But history teaches us this is a long and steep road.
There are, however, some factors which the West can, and must, confront now. This requires both men and women to choose to challenge and be active in resisting the status quo.
Choosing to challenge does take people out of their comfort zones, but not before time – and this is the time. The door is already ajar – we need to fling it open.
The pandemic has shown us that leaders, be they men or women, who listened to and cared for their people were the most effective at leading in these challenging times.
Old macho cultures have no place today, yet they still too often dominate at the top of organisations. In far too many cases women are complicit in this testosterone-based ethos.
Society needs to give licence to both women and men to call out and have the agency to expose outdated and unacceptable attitudes and behaviours which remain stubbornly prevalent. Legal intervention has a role to play, but it does not address the systemic bias against and exclusion of women which have been woven into workplace narratives for centuries.
This is true for all kinds of organisations, be they companies large or small, professional service firms, academic institutions, governments, charities or the armed forces. It is also true for families and communities.
Most people do not want a world in which they are reluctant to challenge their leaders because they are fearful for their jobs, for their promotion prospects and for not being ‘in the club’. They go along with things because of a feeling that they have no choice.
If we were to be truly free to challenge and did not have to choose to challenge, how good would that be? It would be a victory for the vast majority of decent women and yes, men.
Although happily there are signs of change, too many men behave differently at work than they do at home, believing they have no choice. The men who supported Helen had daughters and wanted them to have unlimited opportunities in their careers. They were, of course, encouraged by their wives who had experienced the unlevel playing field earlier in their own lives.
The urgent need now is for many, many more women to be in leadership roles at the top of all organisations. It is harder to achieve, and necessarily will take longer to achieve than appointing women to boards as non-executives, which was itself a hard fought fight, and one which continues. Ensuring female executives become the norm at the top will mean fighting even harder and this needs to be done with huge urgency.
In the meantime, the goal for every organisation, no matter their size or their field, should be to enable both women and men to be able to challenge the behaviours which retain the status quo and to go on to create a level playing field.
If it were to be so, then maybe next year, or certainly over the next decade, International Women’s Day would not need to say women should choose to challenge because of course, they would not need to challenge. So let us choose to challenge, and challenge to change!
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.