This is a guest blog from Sangita Singh, senior vice president, global head – healthcare and life sciences at Wipro Technologies.
With the European Union going into lengthy discussions about boardroom quotas, the hotly contested issue of increasing the number of female executives is high on the agenda for 2013. Recently, there has been a lot of debate around how best to ensure more women make it into the top jobs, with the EEF calling for a national campaign to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects and to increase the numbers of women on boards.
And it’s not surprising that such organisations are putting out a rallying call for change; according to Europe-wide figures published in 2012, the percentage of women in boardrooms was just 13.7%. Moreover, according to further figures published last year, of the Fortune 500 companies only 19 (that’s less than 5 per cent) have a woman at the top.
I’m not saying the situation is completely bleak; in India, the situation is certainly improving and we are seeing women in politics, banking, manufacturing and the technology sector too. However, we need to see more success stories globally – particularly in the traditionally ‘male’ professions. The handful of women CEOs we have today does not adequately reflect women’s true potential and I really believe it is in our collective interest to see a dramatic change.
There is a real need to get to the core of why women aren’t making it into the boardroom. Given the fact that in the early stages of corporate careers the ratio is more or less 50-50 between men and women – why do the proportions change so dramatically as careers progress? Once the mid-level point is reached, the ratio is skewed to a shocking 80-20 in favour of men, and at senior levels – the ‘game changers’ stage – it reaches an abysmally low 5 per cent.
Clearly, many women drop out of their professions just as they are peaking. A few years into their careers, they find themselves at the classic crossroads, where the pressures and conditioning of societal convention make many step down from the ladder. Dragon’s Den’s Hilary Devey addressed exactly this issue just this week, making the controversial claim that “The glass ceiling does not exist…I can’t get any women on my board because women generally put their partner and children first.”
I feel passionate that such a stark decision shouldn’t have to be made. A woman should feel supported by her family, spouse, organisation and society so that she can pursue her passions and live up to her professional potential without being made to feel guilty and torn by such choices.
As a female corporate executive myself, juggling my career, travel, in-laws, a son, my husband and society, I can empathise with the pulls and pressures of family and business; of expectations from others – not to mention my own expectations. Some useful advice for young women in early phases of their careers would be: stay positive, stay passionate, try to prioritise, don’t dwell, regret or brood excessively, and you really can have it all.
The modern career woman often finds herself in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation when trying to navigate the fine line which divides their work and personal lives. The reasons are varied: from old sociocultural attitudes to legacy laden environments that are just not suited to promote female success. As Rebecca Armstrong at the Independent quite rightly pointed out, ambition is not a stick to beat anyone with; drive and motivation are praiseworthy qualities in men and the same should be the case for women.
It is hard to foresee exactly what the outcome of the EU discussions will be; there are strong arguments both for and against boardroom quotas and clearly even among female executives sentiment is far from homogenous. However, what is fantastic to see is that the issue is being addressed and talked about. From Hilary Devey’s contentious comments to the EEF’s latest outcry for more women in STEM industries, the prospect of increasing the number of women in senior positions is looking increasingly positive every day. And with such positivity around International Women’s Day just a few weeks ago, the future for ambitious girls and women looks bright.