Unlocking the full potential of women at work

We hosted our annual Inspiring Women Careers Conference a few weeks back. Impressively successful women, leaders in a whole range of professional backgrounds – science, engineering and technology, finance, communications, retail, law, medicine and design – joined us to share with our pupils their insights into the world of work and leadership. They spoke of their paths to leadership, the importance of confidence, networking, work/life balance, the challenges of leading your own business and more. Their key messages were well received: be prepared to take risks, be flexible, adaptable, get work experience being among them.

Now pretty much any St Mary’s Calne girl will have everything it takes to lead a fulfilling life and have a successful career. We do everything we can to make sure they learn to be effective team members and to encourage leadership qualities. Because our girls are confident and articulate they should be able to speak up at work, offering their ideas, even in the face of ‘mansplaining’ ‘manterruptions’ and ‘bropropriating’ – just some of the new terms coined in recent times to reflect issues that have always been out there but that have never really had the analysis they deserve.  However, although they do not face some of the same barriers as women who are now in their 40s and 50s, I still worry that not enough is being done to dismantle the barriers women encounter and to tackle gender inequality in the workplace.

Women continue to earn less than their male counterparts – 17% in the EU and 21% less in the USA. It emerged last week, to Nicky Morgan’s embarrassment, that women working for the Conservative Equalities Minister on closing the gender pay gap are paid considerably less than men. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report says that at current rates of progress we will have to wait 81 years for gender parity in the global workplace. That is at least not as long as women waited for the vote but still wholly unacceptable.

And, interestingly, women hold just 21% of Google’s leadership positions and 23% of Facebook’s senior roles – so even in these most modern of organisations, the old situation rumbles on. There are just six FTSE 100 companies with female CEOs. Too many bright young talents leave the workplace too soon. 37% of professional women voluntarily drop out of employment (for family responsibilities) compared to 24% of men. This has serious implications for lost income, impeded career growth, depreciation of skills and difficulty in re-establishing one’s career. We know that women still face prejudice and stereotypes when they combine career with motherhood with working mothers seen as less dedicated to their career than working fathers. Have you even heard of the term working fathers?

None of the above happens because women are less intelligent, less qualified or less competent. We know that a higher percentage of women than men hold a university degree and women consistently outperform men in academic achievement. So why is it still so difficult to unlock the full potential of women at work?

Most research concludes that the biggest barriers to career advancement are beyond women’s personal control. Everything from inflexible working schedules to an absence of role models and mentors and from the absence of effective management training for women to a failure to hold senior managers to account for addressing inequalities. Let’s also not forget the stereotyping and preconceptions about women’s suitability for leadership.

The key to change is for all of us to stop thinking of gender inequality as a woman’s issue and to start allowing everyone – ie half the human population – to fulfil their potential. We see that potential every day here at St Mary’s Calne and that’s exactly why we’re so committed to our work and convinced of the importance of what we do.


What’s Holding Women Back In The Workplace – Nikki Waller and Joann S. Lublin
Gender inequality in the workplace is men’s work too – FT.com, 15th September 2015