Katie Litchfield, Author at WeQual

Author: Katie Litchfield

Diversity has to include a seat at the top table

What I have learned about DEI from the WeQual process, by CEO and Founder, Katie Litchfield

Companies that are serious about diversity, equality, and inclusion, need to keep their DEI Chief out of the HR department. Because, if you believe in the importance of DEI, then your diversity and inclusion lead has to have a seat on the executive committee automatically. And report directly to the CEO, too. 

Having a face at the top table is not just a token visible effort either, it is a vital part of humanising the equality of your company. Having someone who can talk directly to the executive committee about real stories and real people – real women – is better than any target reached in a report. After all, there is no point having targets if no one is listening to women and they are leaving.

Over the last two and a half years, as founder of WeQual, I have spoken to hundreds of senior women, conducted detailed interviews with 120 WeQual finalists from companies all over the world, and spoken to hundreds of CEOs and their HR, and Diversity and Inclusion, leaders. Having access to such an experienced knowledge bank has led me to conclude that change has to come from the top. Women (as does everyone) know when they are not taken seriously, or when their leaders are only playing lip service to gender parity on the executive committee. Companies should be under no illusion: their women know when they are being hoodwinked. And they will walk.

Actions always speak louder than words, so I despair when I hear of companies that are so fearful of their women leaving that they even bar them from entering awards – like the WeQual Awards – because they worry about them getting poached. They must think that if they can keep these women secret then they will retain them. 

They won’t.

If only companies would think positively. Just imagine the reaction to a policy of sitting women (and other members of your staff) down and together worked out a career progression within your company? Or even put together policies that encouraged a healthy work/life balance? Only good could come from both policies.

Don’t get me wrong, women are not after any special treatment. But women are more likely to be affected by work breaks, or childcare, or even having to look after an elderly relative, than their male counterparts. Supporting them can go a long way to retaining your top talent.

Women only want human understanding – especially when they are going through temporary life-changing experiences. A company needs to understand that circumstances which force people to take extended – or indefinite – leave are not permanent. Being sensible, and giving women the time they need, is invaluable.

I have found that there are three crucial ways in which the most successful companies have managed to keep a high level of retention among their talented women:

  1. Politics: Companies are constantly riddled with internal politics in which one person is seen as the “next big thing” above all others. This often misdirected favouritism is the lead player in the lack of talent acceleration within a company. 

  2. So-called “Imposter Syndrome”: When women feel an overwhelming sense of not belonging it is often labelled as “imposter syndrome”, which has become a sort of catch-all diagnosis for women who feel a huge sense of not belonging. It is perhaps more accurate to see it as the result of implicit bias. In general, the way we work is often set up to make women feel out of place. Women work in a different way to men, they take less credit, they are less aggressive, they are team players. All stereotypes, true, but the point is valid. A woman, for example can be told that she is being too harsh AND too friendly, all in the same day! How could anyone feel comfortable when they are constantly bombarded with contradictory and alien ways of being.

  3. How companies fill top jobs: There has been a huge amount of positive progression in the recruitment industry as regard to balancing gender equality. But still I find myself having conversations with senior executive women that feel some recruitment agencies only provide a 50/50 gender split short list for a role because they “have to”, rather than genuinely seeking out talented women.

Women are getting tired of being put into a box by everyone involved in their advancement. Unless these issues are addressed in all major companies, we are likely to see a continuation of the record number of women who have left top roles in the last year: either to work for themselves. Or they are leaving the business sphere altogether.

As one woman, at the end of her tether after trying to progress for years, told me the other week: “It’s not a glass ceiling, it’s more like a sticky door. Which means that, because it is sticky, it is hard to push. But if someone is pulling with you on the other side it makes a world of difference.

“But when that door shuts it sticks again, which makes it harder to push open again. There very rarely appears to be someone on the other side of the door these days,” she added.

Companies are trying hard to fix this, which is to be applauded. And it is so pleasing to report too that I am speaking to more and more talented women who are emerging thanks to the WeQual process. 

So let’s keep pushing.

The Buck Stops With Ceos When It Comes to Women at The Top

Forget quotas and so-called “realistic” targets for gender diversity at Executive Committee (ExCo) level. Let’s be absolutely clear: what we are aiming for is a 50/50 split. Why? Well, it’s not rocket science! That is the gender split in the general population, therefore that should be the gender split on any executive committee. Anywhere in the world.

And I’m not talking about a fudged 50/50 made up by women for the most part sitting in the typically functional roles, with the men in the P&L roles. Nope. That won’t do. An equal split in the P&L positions too, please.

Once we have created that 50/50 gender split at ExCo level, the rest of the diversity and inclusion spectrum will naturally become the primary focus. And progress will speed up.

Over the last two and a half years, I have spoken to hundreds of senior women, conducted detailed interviews with 120 WeQual finalists from companies all over the world, and spoken to hundreds of CEOs and their HR and Diversity and Inclusion leaders, as founder of WeQual.

 

So, where are we today worldwide?

Well, probably the most progressive companies are in the UK, which is ahead of the game when it comes to gender equality on its executive committees. Elsewhere, when it comes to equality for women at the top, it is a different story. The US talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk.

Meanwhile, in Australia, there is a really positive attitude towards gender equality, but their traditionally conservative society is still way behind.

Talking to business leaders in India, I get a sense of compassion for the cause. There is a genuine appetite for change, but there is a real knowledge gap there. They want to learn how to change but don’t know exactly where they should be looking for role models.

Wherever you are in the world, the biggest companies are all pretty much in the same boat – and they are all trying to solve the problem of equality at the top, in isolation.

Everyone needs to understand that there is no silver bullet – there is no hard and fast rule or correct answer to this problem. We need to learn from each other’s experiences – both positive and negative. There just isn’t enough collaboration at the moment. When we learn from each other we speed up the process, and we desperately need this co-operation because we must increase the pace.

The change has to come from the top if we are to speed up this process. Contrary to popular belief, that is not happening at the moment. In general, CEOs are not on board with gender equality. They are playing lip service. They see it as a tick-box exercise.

What they need to understand is that they are not fooling anyone – and especially not the women in their company. They will know that their leadership is not taking them seriously.

It is all very well for CEOs to be making a lot of noise about diversity and inclusion and gender equality. But in so many cases, the rest of the C-suite finds it difficult to believe that the sentiment is authentic. And if they don’t believe it, then you can guarantee that their women don’t either.

If you think you’re done because you’ve set up a women’s working group then you are very much mistaken. And let’s be clear, we are not talking about just a few isolated CEOs here. The latest reports and figures on gender diversity all seem so positive that you may almost be forgiven if you were to think I was talking about just a few isolated CEOs here and there. 

I’m not. Far from it. I am talking about the vast MAJORITY of CEOs paying nothing but lip service to the issue of gender equality in the C-suite. 

And this will only hurt the companies of the CEOs who refuse to take the issue seriously. Because talented women make a real difference. Companies who have taken their women seriously have seen the benefits in their bottom lines. And in the general happiness in their workforce, and the general health of their company. Staff retention is high, people are motivated.

Elsewhere, the picture is much starker. Those inside the company who do care are frustrated and exhausted as they see the company standing by as they allow their female talent to leave.

Thankfully, there are some CEOs who are serious about their women. And in the spirit of collaboration it is worth sharing some of their thoughts.

“When I lose somebody,” one of them told me in confidence, “I make sure my managers find out why. There is always a reason why someone wants to leave – particular women – and it is vital to find out why. I ALWAYS want to know.”

Another one said: “When a talented woman leaves to raise her children, or another long-term reason, I make sure that we stay in touch. It is important to make them feel that their career isn’t over just because they’ve taken an extended break.”

“It’s OK to let your talent go, “I was told by a woman CEO the other day. “Sometimes they need to go to get the experience they need to progress. If you make them feel valued and show them they have a defined career path with you, then they will come back.”

As I said before, it is clear to me that there is no one simple answer to getting this right. There is no silver bullet. But, as those progressive CEOs I quoted above have so ably demonstrated: if the leadership is genuinely committed to gender equality, then everyone in the company gets it. 

A 50-50 gender split on Global Executive Committees is the only goal that matters
– Katie Litchfield

Yesterday, the Hampton-Alexander Review – which was set up to shine a spotlight on the representation of women in senior leadership positions – reported that the number of women on boards has risen 50% since the first review five years ago.

This is great news. In the last five years, we have started to see a positive shift in attitude towards gender diversity on boards and in executive committees. From last month, there are now no more all-male boards in the FTSE 350.   

But we are a long way from where we should be. We must aim for 50-50 gender equality on executive committees. And not just in the UK, but globally.

In the last five years, we have started to see a positive shift in attitude towards gender diversity on boards and in executive committees. From last month, there are now no more all-male boards in the FTSE 350.  

The Review was my inspiration for the WeQual Awards. The visionaries who set it up, and those business leaders who have championed it over the last five years, have helped make redressing the lack of women in leadership positions a top priority.

WeQual identifies, highlights and supports these already successful women who directly report into their executive committees. WeQual has over 120 women who have the leadership traits to make it to the top and nine WeQual women have been promoted to executive committees since launching in 2019.

And we should celebrate this. But let’s not get carried away because there is a long way still to go.

Still, just 26.5% of executive committee members are women in FTSE 100 companies – and fewer still (21.7%) in FTSE 250 companies, the 2021 Review reveals. And only 31.2% of direct reports to ExCo members in FTSE 100 (29.7% in FTSE 250 companies) are women.

We are 20-plus years into the 21st century, and barely over one in five members of FTSE 250 executive committees is a woman. 

And then there is the question of how much influence women have at the top. There are just 8 women CEOs in the FTSE 100, only two more than in 2016. And only 9 in the FTSE 250 – exactly the same as in 2017.

WeQual has over 120 women who have the leadership traits to make it to the top and nine WeQual women have been promoted to executive committees since launching in 2019.

What progress that has been made in the last five years has been at a small group of companies that have embraced change. For example, more than 80% of FTSE 250 companies failed to reach the Hampton-Alexander Review’s targets for leadership. Likewise, 63% of FTSE 100 companies also failed to reach the same target.

With this being the last Hampton-Alexander report we stand at a critical point. Let’s keep pushing for change.

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