By Sheila Flavell CBE, COO of FDM Group

Women today continue to face obstacles in attaining leadership roles, hindered by unconscious biases and a lack of mentorship. Business leaders must acknowledge and address these challenges with proactive strategies to fully utilise the available talent pool and narrow the gender gap in leadership.

According to PwC’s Women in Work Index, the UK has experienced the biggest yearly drop among OECD countries, falling from 13th to 17th place. This drop is due to the gender pay gap widening slightly from 14.3 per cent to 14.5 per cent.

Despite some improvements, the UK’s progress toward gender equality in the workplace is slower compared to other countries. It is estimated that at the current pace, it would take 43 years to close the gender pay gap in the UK.

Women in the UK face a “gender pay penalty,” earning on average 10 per cent less than men, even when considering similar qualifications and backgrounds. This penalty increases with age and is exacerbated by factors like childcare and menopause.

Overall, while the UK still leads the G7 countries in gender equality in the workplace, the gap between it and other countries, like Canada, is narrowing. Promoting diversity and inclusivity within the technology and business sectors is imperative. It’s crucial to empower individuals of all backgrounds and genders to advance their careers and rise to leadership positions.

This emphasises the need to work toward closing the gender pay gap, giving support to working parents, and policies that address health and wellbeing in the workplace to improve gender equality. By embracing diversity and providing equal opportunities, companies can benefit from a well-rounded team and improved performance.

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases significantly influence decision-making, often favouring men over women. Research shows that woman have a 49 per cent lower chance of being hired than their male counterparts with similar qualifications.

Similarly, women leaders are often held to higher standards and judged more harshly than their male peers, facing a double standard that scrutinises their decisions differently. Recognising and addressing these disparities is crucial for achieving equality.

Combatting these deep-seated biases is vital for promoting equitable and inclusive leadership environments. Implementing training and awareness programmes can help mitigate unconscious biases and gender stereotypes, particularly in upper management and executive roles. Furthermore, a thorough review of hiring practices is necessary to ensure fairness and to address biases at their source.

Stereotypes and social expectations

Societal perceptions about balancing work and family life disproportionately impact women, complicating their ability to manage familial duties alongside career aspirations. This contributes to the “motherhood penalty,” which worsens the gender pay gap and hinders women from advancing to leadership roles in various fields.

Organisations must adopt inclusive measures, such as offering flexible work schedules, providing childcare solutions, and ensuring equitable parental leave policies.

Underrepresentation and lack of mentorships

The lack of visible role models who have successfully climbed the leadership ladder can make it difficult for women to imagine their own paths to the top. Sponsors within an organisation, who advocate for women’s advancement and open doors to pivotal opportunities, play a crucial role in their professional development. Without these allies, women’s advancement may stall, reinforcing the gender disparity in leadership roles.

For women, a mentor who appreciates the specific hurdles they might encounter can be extraordinarily beneficial. Mentorship cultivates an environment where knowledge, skills, and confidence are shared and developed, enabling women to tackle the challenges of leadership roles with more confidence.

Limited access to high-impact opportunities

Limited access to prominent projects or other advancement prospects can hinder women’s visibility and prospects for climbing the leadership ladder. When women are sidelined from pivotal projects or denied significant opportunities, their achievements may be overlooked, stunting their career development.

Creating fair opportunities is essential for nurturing a diverse pool of future leaders. This entails assigning projects based on skills and merit rather than gender or bias.

Empowering women in leadership

As a nation, we must speed up the progress towards gender equality, especially in the workplace. It is essential to foster diversity and inclusion in the technology and business sectors and empower talent from all backgrounds and genders to climb the professional ladder and ascend to leadership.

The rise of programmes benefiting women, such as FDM’s returners programme, can actively support women returning to work after career breaks, creating a pathway for them to excel in leadership roles.

It is important to cultivate a workplace where talent and potential drive career progression, irrespective of gender.

About the author

Sheila has over 30 years of experience in both the public and private IT sectors. She spearheads FDM’s global Women in Tech initiative and Returners Programme. Sheila was awarded a CBE in the 2020 New Year Honours List for services to gender equality in IT, and graduate and returners’ employment.

Sheila has been invited to advise government committees on improving the digital skills shortage and gender pay gap in the UK. Her work has been recognised by numerous awards, including inclusion in Computer Weekly’s ‘Most Influential Women in UK Tech, Hall of Fame,’ at the 2020 European Tech Women Awards, The Department of Trade and Industry recognised her outstanding achievements by conferring Sheila with a ‘Career Recognition’ award.