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Womenomics: how to get ahead

Three women at the very top of their game reveal the secrets of their success.

2015-womenomics-883x432Few weeks go by without some new challenge to senior women hitting the headlines, whether it’s Simon Rothery, CEO of Goldman Sachs Australia, calling for a national debate on childcare to stem the flood of senior women leaving the workplace, or Professor Alison Wolf’s recent comments that modern feminism is preoccupied with “the economic self-interest of the top people”.

At the heart of the debate is the number of women filling senior positions, and the barriers and challenges of getting there. A new study by Sucheta Nadkarni, the Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management at Cambridge Judge Business School, has found a slow and steady increase in the number of women on boards from nine per cent in 2004 to 16.4 per cent in 2013.

This change hasn’t happened in a vacuum: the last decade has seen positive action in many countries in Europe. For example, the targets set by the 2011 Davies Review (for women to make up 25 per cent of FTSE 100 board members by 2015) in the UK and quotas enshrined in law in Germany have both had success. In the UK, women now comprise 23.5 per cent of board members, up from 12.5 per cent in just four years; in Germany, women must fill 30 per cent of non-executive roles.

Perhaps inevitably, much of this action is local, not global: as the 2012 McKinsey report Women Matter: An Asian Perspective points out, the proportion of women on Asian boards compared to Europe and the US is “strikingly low”, with the issue of gender diversity “not yet high on the strategic agenda”.

Nadkarni’s research itself reveals a complex picture of intersecting cultural and socio-economic factors that affect the number of senior women – not to mention the fact that the more empowered women are outside the boardroom, the more likely they are to find their way inside.

But what does it look like for individual women? To get a better picture, we asked three senior women: what worked for you?

Rowena Ironside

Rowena Ironside is a non-executive director, consultant and angel investor. Her board experience includes five years on the board of the entrepreneurial startup, Cupcake Mum, a private members club for women who have just had babies. She is currently executive Chair of Women on Boards UK and a Fellow of Hughes Hall, Cambridge.

I’ve always put my hand up for things and taken risks. I think it’s been easier for me to do because I haven’t had children. If my organisation was looking for someone to do a project in Japan or in Paris, I would put my hand up. Sometimes these opportunities involved things that I’d never done before, but I’d go for it anyway. So risk-taking is part of it. You have to put yourself out there. If you take risks, you gain confidence.

But I’m also a natural networker. I’ve kept in touch with people right through my career and initially I did it simply because I like people. It was only later on that I realised how important networks really are in your career. As you get more senior some of the best jobs, and certainly board roles, often come to you through your network. When I got into the dotcom boom, it was through an ex-colleague who had started working for Exodus Communications, a fast-growing Internet data centre company. He just rang me up and said: we need good people, come and join me. I didn’t even know what an Internet data centre was when he made that phone call, but I took the role and was in post within a couple of weeks.

That need for a strong network is linked to why there aren’t more women on boards. The key is access to information. One of the biggest factors that prevents women getting into the boardroom is a lack of information about what goes on in the boardroom, what roles are out there and how their skills are relevant. And the reason that the information isn’t available is because, simply, there are fewer women in the boardroom and guys will often hear about this stuff at the golf club. That’s when they get to ask the “stupid” questions. If you know nothing about boardrooms, you may assume that it’s not for you, or that you have to be Richard Branson to qualify. You don’t have anyone to ask, and that’s where Women on Boards can help. It’s a place where you can ask the stupid questions and where you can find out what roles are out there, how you find them and how you position yourself.

And it may sound simple, but you need to tell people that you’re interested in the boardroom. People tend to assume you’re not interested – particularly if you’re a woman. You will find that people will think that you are too busy, particularly if you have children. So the one piece of advice we give everyone is tell people: tell your networks, tell your clients, tell people at dinner parties.

Jane Fraser

Jane Fraser is the CEO of Citigroup Latin America, responsible for all businesses in the 24 countries where Citi is present, including Mexico. Jane sits on Citi’s Operating Committee.

Mentoring has been very important for me. Managing your career can be much like giving a friend personal advice. It’s easy to see where your friend might be going wrong, as you can see it perfectly clearly – but it’s hard to step back and see where you’re going wrong yourself. You can be brilliant at giving other people advice, but when it comes to yourself, it’s very hard. Having someone who will point out to you where you’re not doing things well, and identifying what specific help you need, is important. And it’s not always a boss – in fact, usually it’s not a boss. Those mentors can also be friends, peers, or they could be someone working for you

But it’s important to work with the people that are really going to give you the feedback that matters. It’s no good just being told you’re doing well at running a particular project – you need to make sure you’re building your own skills at the same time. You can do all the work but are you the one who can generate a new amount of work, and pitch? You may be very capable, but are you actually influencing that senior client? These can be hard transitions but you need to pick yourself up and learn from them. That network of people who will provide that sounding board has been critical for me.

There’s also a middle zone, in the middle of your career, where you’ve got to learn a different set of skills – when just doing all the work is no longer enough. The more senior you get, the less you actually know, as you’re further away from the details. Instead of having 100 per cent of the facts it’s much more about leading change and asking questions, which I think women are very well suited to. But women tend to be a little more risk averse. Unless we feel 100 per cent competent at something we’re a little more reticent to speak up, and you have to learn how to get over that.

But I’ve found that being different – being a woman – can work for you. I’ve just taken over responsibility for Citigroup in Latin America. I’m the first ever woman on the board of the bank in Chile that we run, and I’m the first ever woman to run the bank in Mexico – the biggest bank in the country. I turn up in a bright red dress and my style is demonstrably different as I’ve found that’s a strength. For example, I’ll use humour if someone’s being overtly sexist – you’re not directly knocking someone down, you’re not causing offence to them, but you’re making the point.

Caroline Carr

Caroline Carr is a managing director at Goldman Sachs, where she is the Global Co-head of Talent Development. She is a steering committee member of the 30% Club and leads their Professional Services Firms’ initiative. She is also the founder of the organisation for women in the fields of legal and compliance, Network for Knowledge and a member of the Development Board of Christ’s College, University of Cambridge.

In the junior years, hard work, attention to detail and outstanding execution was essential. I believe that’s the same for men and women. But as I’ve progressed, I’ve learned that there are other things you need to focus on in order to really make step change.

To me, it’s about going the extra mile, which is not always just about the amount of work you do. Being thoughtful about how you spend your time and what you spend it on is an important factor. Sometimes it’s about being on the right assignments: trying to find the work that will be the most valuable to the organisation and therefore the most valued.

Being unafraid to take on assignments that aren’t strictly within your remit is also important. I have seen that approach work well over the years and it certainly helped me build pivotal relationships with senior leaders to whom I had exposure through such work. However you describe this kind of interaction, whether as your stakeholders or your sponsors, what it creates is a meaningful reciprocal relationship. If you do something that is valuable to the organisation and do it well, those senior leaders are more likely to be willing to support you and, in effect, attach their reputation to you, which may lead to broader opportunities in the future.

Both Network for Knowledge and the 30% Club are organisations dedicated to opportunity for women. And both have been fantastic examples of the power of collaboration and collective action by men and women. I set up Network for Knowledge because I had found the women’s network within Goldman Sachs very valuable, so it made sense to create an equivalent organisation for a broader set of women. By bringing women in the law and compliance together from across law firms and banks, it gave us a chance to look beyond traditional boundaries, share experience across the sectors and build a strong network in these fields.

These sorts of organisations look at issues where firms on their own might hesitate or have been trying to tackle on their own for a long time. Under an umbrella structure, particularly in the case of the 30% Club, you effectively create a kind of safe haven, to look at collective challenges. The 30% Club Professional Services Firms’ Initiative has been a great way to harness leadership engagement, and get innovative, practical ideas going across the firms to save others reinventing the wheel. It’s a great model for trying to make progress quickly.