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Why a ‘pipeline of women leaders’ is not the answer

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By Kathryn Bishop There has been much talk of the need to create a "pipeline" of women ready to become leaders in business. We certainly need more women leaders but I’m not sure that a pipeline is the single best answer.

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Some commentators claim women miss out on senior roles because they don’t behave like men aiming for the same positions. They don’t push themselves forward; they don’t ask for the resources they need; they are too willing to share credit – and so they are too easily overlooked by firms using traditional criteria.

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But the reason everyone wants more women at the top in business is because they want diversity – people who think and act differently. We don’t need women leaders who are just more decorative versions of men. We need different types of leaders who will introduce different attitudes and behaviours at the top of organisations, and cause them to trickle throughout the economy.

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So what should we do? First, introduce leadership development specifically for women that helps them to feel confident in their strengths and to develop their own styles. The reason Oxford university has created a women-only leadership executive education programme is to take gender out of the equation.

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This allows a purposeful exploration of diversity, and encourages them to learn from each other’s styles – rather than pitting them against “masculine” models of leadership.

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Meanwhile, companies that are serious about diversity need to think more creatively about how to recruit women to senior positions. Not all the talented women who drop out of the high-performance rat-race stop working. Some join smaller, more flexible, organisations, perhaps in different sectors, or set up their own businesses. They are still building their experience and honing their talents: companies need to work harder to tempt them back.

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We must also be open to the changes they will want to make. A successful consultant who has worked flexibly yet effectively is unlikely to change her outlook and arrangements in order to slot back into the constraints of traditional corporate life. She will want to do things differently, not only for herself but for others in the organisation.

Smaller businesses less likely to appoint women as directors

By Harriet Agnew

Large multinational companies are much more likely to appoint women as directors than smaller businesses, according to a new study into boardroom diversity at more than 2m employers.

Research by Wilkins Kennedy, an accountancy firm, found that 60 per cent of UK-based companies with revenues of more than £1bn currently have female directors. But for companies with revenues of between £500m and £1bn, this proportion falls to 48 per cent – and for those where revenues are between £1m and £25.9m it drops to 35 per cent. Big companies, especially those in the FTSE 100 index, are more likely to respond to pressure for greater gender equality on their boards, given their public profile, the researchers found. In recent years, a number of campaigns have been launched to increase the number of women on boards. In the UK, The 30 Per Cent Club was set up in 2010 with a goal of increasing the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards to that level by the end of 2015. A large part of the 30 Per Cent Club’s campaign has been highlighting the barriers preventing women from reaching the top – and it is now running a mentoring scheme to improve the number of women executives rising through the corporate ranks. Alison Nayler, a partner at Wilkins Kennedy, a top-25 accountancy firm, said: "FTSE 100 companies have a much higher public profile and it is good for their reputation to be seen as being in the vanguard of the campaign for greater equality. They are also keenly aware of the importance of ensuring that they are recruiting from the widest possible pool of talent." Larger companies tend to offer more generous maternity leave or flexible working arrangements than their smaller counterparts, Ms Nayler found, which can support senior women employees in their progression towards the boardroom, and increase female staff retention generally. Ms Nayler said: "Larger companies usually experience a much lower dropout rate of female talent than medium-sized businesses [ . . .] This helps them to retain more female talent so that women can advance their careers and reach the most senior positions." However, she warned that more needed to be done to help ensure women can progress to board director level within smaller companies and public bodies. "Businesses may need to become more open to flexible working practices to ensure women are given equal opportunity to flourish," she said. "The government should also continue to encourage better flexible provisions – this is particularly vital outside of school hours and during the holidays as it is much harder to find temporary or part-time childcare than it is to find a nursery."

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