Dr Liz Cameron: Let’s support the next generation of female leaders

International Women’s Day gives us the perfect opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come, but also how far we have yet to go, writes Dr Liz Cameron.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's cabinet is made up of seven women and five men.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's cabinet is made up of seven women and five men.

International Women’s Day has been celebrated every 8th of March for well over 100 years.

It started as a labour movement after 15,000 women took to the streets in New York City calling for better pay and the right to vote and almost immediately became an international movement thereafter. It is fitting to look at how, more than a century later, women are faring in the workforce and business as we celebrate how far we have come and consider how far we have yet to go.

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In Scotland there is much to celebrate in terms of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements woman have made and are currently making.

Starting from the top, we can point to Scotland’s First Minister and her cabinet, including the Scotland’s first female finance minister, which is made of up seven women and five men.

The Scottish Chambers of Commerce’s own network also shows strong representation of female leadership. The Scottish Chamber network is made up of 30 chambers across Scotland.

Women make up half of the chamber network leadership, either chief executives or presidents where the chamber has no CEO. My own board overseeing SCC has some brilliant woman on it and is also made up of seven women and five men.

Is that it? Has the struggle for equality been achieved? Are we all recognising the enormous benefits of having a mixed, talented team driving us forward? I would say we are close but still a way to go.

First are the worrying signs that the pandemic has stalled or set back equality. The issue is twofold. One is due to higher female representation among employees in sectors disproportionately affected by lock downs, such as retail, food and beverage, care, accommodation, or personal services.

For example, retail is one of the largest employers in the private sector with approximately 2.8 million people working in this field in the UK. Of these 58% are women. Jobs most affected by lock down restrictions were in those parts of the business where more women tend to work while more male-dominated warehouse and logistics jobs have been less affected or even increased.

Women also faced taking on the greater share of childcare responsibilities when schools shut, many having to add teaching and care to their responsibilities as well as working from home.

A select committee formed to address this warned the UK was at risk of “turning back the clock” on women’s equality, with the pandemic having been shown to make existing inequalities worse for pregnant women, new mothers, the self-employed, women claiming benefits and those working in the professional childcare sector.

It goes to show that while women are increasingly represented in high profile leadership roles, there is still a need to develop skills at all levels, both to ensure the pipeline is maintained while also improving the lot of those who may not necessarily want or be on the track for the top jobs.

Efforts aiming to increase women at the top are bearing fruit. A recent update by the Hampton-Alexander Review, a body whose aim is to increase the number of women on the boards of FTSE-350 companies, has shown progress being made.

The group builds on the work of the Davies review which launched in 2011. At this time women made up just 12.5% of women on FTSE 100 boards. Five years later when the committee completed its initial work, that number had more than doubled to 26.1% on the FTSE 100 and 19.6% in the FTSE 250.

But the recommendation then was to increase the voluntary target for women’s representation on boards of FTSE 350 companies, to a minimum of 33% in another five years. Last month, Hampton-Alexander showed that this had been achieved – more than a third (34.3%) of FTSE 350 board positions are now held by women.

Great news but once again, still work to be done here. While the review marked the death of the all-male board in the UK, the top jobs such as CEO and chair were still mostly male.

The number of so-called “one & done” boards – with only one woman – has also fallen from 116 in 2015 to just 16. But what we need is to continue to build on this momentum.

Why should we do this? Not only because it is right, but the economic and social benefits are staggering. Diversity matters. Increasing representation of race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation is the first step to combatting “group think”. A recent report by McKinsey reaffirmed its prior research that the most diverse companies – based on gender, ethnic and cultural diversity – are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.

It’s not just the board room either. For years, women have been under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) university courses and occupations and recent progress here has stalled.

This is despite the efforts of some high-profile women of significant achievement. I can point to my good friend and colleague, Jeanette Forbes – a leading light in STEM and like me a strong advocate of mentoring. A systems engineer, Jeanette set up her own company, PCL

Group after she was made redundant during a downturn in the oil and gas industry. She has won a number of national awards and industry accolades, particularly for her role in promoting career opportunities for women in the energy sector and her dedication to mentoring other women.

For International Women’s Day I’d like to see more women and men supporting the next generation of female employees and leaders. This year’s theme is “choose to challenge” and I would widen this out to everyone to do their bit to encourage girls and women and support them in whatever they wish to achieve because when they do, they make a real measurable difference.

So come on – let’s make it happen.

Dr Liz Cameron, Chief Executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce.

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