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How can professional services firms stop the flow of females leaving before they reach senior leadership positions?

Who runs the world… not women. It seems Beyonce sees a very different world to the working world in front of us. When it comes to female representation at senior management level, it’s lacking, says says Ambition’s Nicky Acuna Ocana.

The scale of the issue
The lack of women in senior leadership positions isn’t a secret. It’s just not talked about. It’s almost as though no one wants to admit the extent of the problem and admit their part in it, so instead it’s brushed under the carpet.

It’s a big problem. It’s also an issue which has far wider-reaching implications. If the number of women in senior positions increased, we’d see increased levels of productivity, an influx of new and experienced candidates in the job market, the economy would benefit, society would benefit. It’s only a win-win situation.

That’s why it’s so disheartening to look at the situation right now.

– Only 28% of all executive roles in FTSE 100 companies are held by wo
– Between entry level and senior leadership women of colour’s representation drops by over 75%.
– Half of women lose out on promotions despite their qualifications.
– Half of women are paid less than their industry counterparts.
– 37% of women have had a co-worker get credit for their idea.
– Female leaders are twice as likely to be mistaken for someone more junior.
(McKinsey & Co, 2023)

It doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

It’s only when we understand the full extent of the lack of female representation at senior levels that we can start to unpick why we’re in this position and what we can do about it. We do need to do something about it.

The barriers to equal representation
Lack of gender representation isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s something which has existed since the start of modern society. It’s the history behind it which makes some think that it’s not an issue, or play down its severity.

When you look at the research it’s clear that cultural issues still play an influential role. Whether that’s the number of women being promoted in comparison to men, for every 100 men only 87 women are promoted. Or it might be the disparity in pay. Until we level the playing field in every way, barriers will still remain.

While the pandemic seems like a distant memory, what it highlighted is that caring responsibilities still fall, for the most part, on women. Whether that’s looking after children or ageing parents, it’s women who are the default carer. As a woman advances in her career she’s more likely to reach a point where the demands placed on her by those she looks after means she is forced to make a decision to step back from a senior career.

What can firms do?
The issue of females leaving before they reach senior leadership isn’t going to change at a macro level on its own. What will make a difference is when everyone takes responsibility for themselves and their firm’s actions and makes changes on an individual level.

There are things that firms can do to make a difference for women. But they all start with understanding their own context.

Owning their situation
If you don’t know your starting point then you don’t know if any changes you make are working or not. Undertaking a full audit of the representation of women in your firm, and the point at which they’re leaving, allows you to make changes which will suit your situation.

It might be that you discover women aren’t returning from maternity leave in which case you can look at introducing a re-onboarding process and support a return to work programme. Or it might be that women simply aren’t applying for promotions so you can look at ways to support them.

Until you’re realistic about the situation in your firm that’s backed up with real evidence, not assumptions, then you’re never going to be able to successfully address the flow of females leaving.

Support across the whole employee’s life cycle
The number of women and men recruited at a graduate level is the same. But slowly the number of women in the workplace declines over time. That’s because women face specific challenges that don’t impact men in the same way. From pregnancy to menopause to glass ceilings to confidence.

The working world is a very different place for a woman than it is for their male counterparts. That’s why firms need to look at the support they offer across the whole employee’s life cycle if they want to keep women engaged and happy in senior leadership positions.

That might look like enhanced maternity pay, period leave, flexibility during the menopause or simply flexible working. Showing women that you not only understand the struggles they face but that you’re compassionate and committed to their success will help establish you as a firm that champions females, and creates an environment for them to thrive, whatever is facing them.

Female focused schemes
Throughout a woman’s career there’s evidence that confidence holds them back. From not applying for jobs unless they match the criteria perfectly to not putting themselves forward or asserting themselves for promotions.

For any firm that’s serious about supporting females into senior leadership roles, steps need to be taken to build women up. Whether that’s through female focused schemes and workshops or paying for professional development opportunities.

It seems obvious that if you want more senior leaders who are female then you need to help them believe they can do it. Too often the belief is that those softer skills are an individual’s responsibility to develop but by developing a woman’s confidence and self-belief, that’s going to allow her to work at a higher level and will benefit the firm too.

When it comes to empowering women in the workplace, mentoring can be such a powerful tool. Women need to see other women leading the way and creating a path for them to follow. They need to see that a woman can be a successful senior leader for them to believe they can do it too.

Establishing a mentoring scheme which allows women in their early career to learn from a woman with a more senior role sets that belief early. There’s no denying that women are ambitious, nine out of ten women under 30 want to be promoted to the next level, and three in four have ambitions of becoming a senior leader. The motivation is there, but along the way they lose it.

Mentoring can be a way to grow that ambition, to stoke the fire that makes them believe they can achieve their dreams.

The first step to overcoming a problem is to admit you have a problem. For many professional service firms that problem is a lack of female representation at senior levels. But there are ways to overcome that.

From mentoring to flexibility to supporting women at whatever stage of life they’re at. There are steps that can be taken to support and encourage women to believe that they can secure a senior leadership role and that they can be brilliant at it.

Failure to take those steps will see more women leaving professional services right at the time they’re about to take that jump, and that would be a missed opportunity for everyone.

Nicky Acuna Ocana is the Regional Managing Director, UK, Europe & US at Ambition, a specialist professional services recruitment agency. Nicky is passionate about ED&I and regularly writes articles on inclusive hiring and various topics relating to ED&I in recruitment.

Matt Baldwin
Matt Baldwin
Co-founder – Coast Communications

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