Break the cycle that keeps women out of senior roles

Comment by Sue Fox, chief executive of HSBC Channel Islands and Isle of Man

Sue Fox (picture supplied by HSBC) (30305277)
Sue Fox (picture supplied by HSBC) (30305277)

‘CORPORATE memory’ is, unsurprisingly, that more men are successful. If we’re going to truly unlock workplace meritocracy, we need to delve beyond our unconscious bias to change this deeply held and flawed mindset.

It’s simply not true that only men can be successful in their jobs. Research by Zenger and Folkman about leadership during the pandemic, published in Harvard Business Review in December 2020, reported that women outscored men on most leadership competencies.

Despite this, when it comes to choosing the person for a job (especially the more senior and high-profile roles), there’s a deep-rooted instinct at play which is looking for the ‘safe bet’ that’s going to work out well. We examine our corporate memory to see what’s worked before, who is successful. What do we see? Mostly men.

The cycle

Every time a woman, who is as equally capable and suitable as a male candidate, is not selected for a role, it cements the existing corporate memory and reinforces the mindset that more men are successful. And so the cycle continues.

Until we can change this pattern, we’re not systematically going to get women being hired on merit.

Confidence killer

When someone puts themselves out there but isn’t successful, or isn’t even considered for a position, it’s naturally going to dent their confidence and can make them feel they’re not good enough.

Training aimed at helping women with their confidence, while well-intentioned, doesn’t address the trigger. What’s worse, it sends a message that the issue lies with women themselves because they lack confidence – this is the symptom, not the cause.

I sometimes hear people assert that women are less open to taking on demanding roles because they want more flexibility to manage family life alongside work demands. My strongly held view is that work flexibility and other work-life balance arrangements should be a viewed as a hygiene factor for male and female employees alike.

Choose to challenge

We’re dealing here with a longstanding, deeply etched, instinctive mindset. But we can change this norm. For the answer, though, we need to look beyond policies, quotas, training and female talent initiatives. This is about creating a different, more level, playing field. And that requires perseverance and time.

Women must keep pushing, keep putting themselves forward for roles in order to break the cycle. We mustn’t give up. The more women who are visibly thriving in their roles, the more this will establish new norms that women can be, and are, successful.

Everyone has a role to play

As individuals, we can choose to challenge our own mindset. And together, through conversation and collaboration, we can examine our beliefs and behaviours to come up with concrete ways to reset corporate memory. Let’s get talking.

Let’s stop looking to the past to make decisions for the future and start looking at the person. Then we have a chance of creating a level playing field, one that’s about capability, not history.

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