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Power, Pay Gaps and Ellen Pao: Lessons From a Year in Women's Leadership

16/12/2015 14:18 GMT | Updated 15/12/2016 10:12 GMT

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It seems fitting that this was the year the movie Suffragette came out. It was a reminder of how far women have travelled in their bid for equal rights.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, not to mention MSF's Joanne Liu -- women made their presence known in politics and public life this year. In Saudi Arabia, voters made history. In Canada, so did Justin Trudeau with his 50:50 cabinet.

Merkel was named Time's person of the year, but 2015 surely belonged to Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi. Having endured house arrest for the better part of two decades, "the Lady" this year led Myanmar's National League for Democracy to victory in the country's first open elections in 25 years. Expectations of her are high -- perhaps unreasonably so. "Ultimately, it will all come down to Ms Suu Kyi's character and temperament," writes one observer. Does she still have to prove herself?

It was disappointing, then, that the UK's Labour party apparently scrambled to find more women to serve in the shadow cabinet. The Department of Education proposals to axe feminism from the A-Level syllabus weren't exactly encouraging, either, and nor was its very short list of female 'political thinkers' worth studying. Little wonder women seem disengaged from politics in the UK.

Are they put off by apparent tokenism at the top? Perhaps the boorish behaviour of the Commons strikes them as infantile and out of tune with leadership values of the 21st century.

  • Next year: "Equality means better politics, a more vibrant economy, a workforce that draws on the talents of the whole population and a society at ease with itself", according to the Women's Equality Party, also launched this year. Branded by naysayers as regressive and anti-feminist, its belief that quotas may be the only way to get more women into Parliament will no doubt fuel debate. But that's what democracy's for, right?

Pay and display

Pay inequality got a major publicity boost when last year's Sony hack revealed big discrepancies between what female and male stars earned. Actress (and what's wrong with this designation, by the way?) Patricia Arquette raised equal pay in her acceptance speech at the 2015 Oscars ceremony. Jennifer Lawrence picked up the baton with a typically frank and endearing open letter. "We just need to put our foot down," echoed Charlize Theron, who did just that in negotiations for her most recent films.

In less starry realms, software firm Salesforce apparently spent $3m to bring the earnings of its female employees into line with male peers, and California signed a "landmark" Fair Pay Act. In the UK, Cameron's government promised to close the gap within a generation.

  • Next year: It may seem a shame that it takes celebrities on supercharged salaries to move the needle, but if that's what it takes... The TUC has called for mandatory pay reporting from all but small businesses. But women can do their part by speaking up if they feel they should be earning more.

Davies' cup half full

It was the year of reckoning for FTSE-350 companies responding (or not) to the 2011 Davies recommendations, which called on companies voluntarily to boost their female board intake to 25 per cent this year or face quotas.

The headline figures looked promising enough for Davies to pronounce it a "near-revolution... in the boardroom and profound culture change at the heart of British business". In numbers, that meant 26.1 per cent women on FTSE-100 boards, 19.6 per cent on 250 boards. In 2011, 152 boards had no women at all. Today, no FTSE-100 board is all male, though 15 in the 250 are without women.

What worked? Proper data crunching, bias recognition, recruitment and assessment processes and talent management were all found to be instrumental.

What didn't? There were too many women in non-exec roles, and a lack of executive appointments, noted Norman Broadbent's Kristyna Nowak.

  • Next year: Ethnic diversity is lacking in boardrooms, and the 'pipeline' remains a problem: below-the-board action is where the work is still needed. We also need to keep stretching: a target of 33 per cent has been suggested for the next five years, and the formation of a steering committee to keep tabs on progress is surely a no-brainer.

Balancing the books

It was a year of firsts for big accounting. Shattering the stereotype of the pinstriped, middle-aged man at the helm, two of the Big Four firms in the US appointed female CEOs this year -- Cathy Engelbert at Deloitte, then Lynn Doughtie at KPMG. In the UK, Sacha Romanovitch became the first woman to lead a top tier firm in Europe when she took the reins at Grant Thornton Europe.

In fact, accounting firms have stolen a march on more trendy industries like tech when it comes to promoting workplace equality -- at PwC, moves include extending workplace paternity leave and supporting HeforShe. Deloitte's programmes speak for themselves (and celebrate working mothers) while under Romanovitch's leadership, GT looks set to undergo a wholesale workplace transformation.

Not everything adds up, of course: smaller, regional firms are less punctilious about gender equality, and there is still some attrition among junior and middle-ranking women in big firms.

  • Next year: The numbers look promising, and may make accounting the primary gateway for aspiring female business leaders. Time will tell whether it has a knock-on effect in other financial sectors, but signs are good. In banking, women accounted for one-quarter of Goldman Sachs's 425 promotions to MD this year, up 20 per cent on the last promotional round, according to Bloomberg.

Flex discrimination

In April, the UK gave another boost to both equality and family-friendly working practices when new rules on shared parental leave came into effect. Some companies, such as Accenture, ran with it, but overall, uptake has been limited, largely because employees still fear that taking leave could be 'career limiting'.

The consensus is that policies are no good without role models who will walk the talk, which is why Mark Zuckerberg won favour for both extending paternity leave at Facebook, and taking two months himself when his daughter was born.

Elon Musk and Marissa Mayer, meanwhile, were pronouned two of the most "anti-family" CEOs in the US, with Mayer again under fire for setting a bad example when it comes to maternity leave. (She cannot catch a break this year.)

  • Next year: We know that policy alone won't shift behaviour, and that it's up to leaders and managers to model the kind of behaviour they want to encourage. Ultimately, the rules should be simpler, says Working Families boss Sarah Jackson: let's "stop salami-slicing the workforce into ever smaller constituencies" and instead aim for "maximum choice and flexibility for all".

Splitting heirs

Succession is the next hurdle for women in leadership. It seems that just getting to the top isn't enough to secure the confidence of nomination committees over time. A study reported in this publication found that women can't just prove themselves once. They have to do it over and over again.

The 'glass cliff' also perpetuates succession problems for women at the top. It proved the second stumbling block for Ellen Pao, whose former colleagues believe her tenure as CEO of Reddit was "doomed from the start" and her resignation the inevitable slip off the glass cliff.

  • Next year: Succession starts far below board-level, and implicates a company's diversity and talent development programmes as well as its recruiting practices. Companies need to have confidence in their own ability to develop leaders of all stripes. But what will convince them that more varied voices at the top are good for business? That's a question for next year.

(Photos: Aung San Suu Kyi by Dom Pates, CC2.0; Angela Merkel by Metropolico.org, CC2.0)