I was speaking at a Women's Summit in Cambridge last week and before my contribution I decided to sit in the audience to listen to the morning's proceedings. There were some great speakers including Maggie Aderin-Pocock, the space scientist and host of Sky at Night. What a female icon and general force of nature. She was both challenging and inspirational. The Summit was beamed to other sites in the England and what gradually dawned on me was that all the front rows in these venues were empty. No women sat at the front.
Cut to last year and another diversity forum but this time with an equal number of male invitees. As the men arrived they went straight to the front two rows but the women, who were still in the majority, scattered themselves randomly around the lecture theatre. They mostly lurked at the back.
Why do women not come to the front?
I know that at the Edinburgh Festival, folk are reluctant to take front row seats unless they want to be chosen as the butt of some comedian's act. I've made that mistake and had to crawl along the stage with a rose in my mouth- don't ask- as well as drumming and dancing embarrassingly at the same time. And all because I arrived too late to get a proper seat and ended up at the front. But surely the women attending didn't believe that humiliation awaited if they took a front row seat. So what's going on?
Some thoughts come to mind:
• Perhaps fear of being asked a question they couldn't answer
• Being hemmed in at the front and therefore unable to sneak out if bored
• Not wanting to be seen as the centre of attention
• Clustering at the back with other women, not wanting to break rank
Not coming to the front seems a telling symbol of how women often disport themselves at work: head down, focus on delivery, praising the team not themselves.
I consistently hear women declare that they are not leaders but part of the team as if that were a good thing to state. No. If you are the leader, then you must lead from the front and if you are reluctant to do so then hand the pay cheque back. You can't hide and be a leader and you certainly can't lurk at the back of a conference room.
So what should women do to 'come to the front'?
1. Ask to be considered for promotion. Don't expect male leaders to notice you. It's not a renowned male trait so why expect it at work
2. Ask for help. Male careers are often enriched with the informal mentoring of senior leaders. Women may have to formalise that help by asking mentor
3. Come to the front by volunteering for tasks no one else wants to do and then delivering well
4. Suggest ideas for change
Do the above and you will be noticed.
I grew up with an assertive mother as a role model. She would make her way to the front of anything, queues, rallies, conferences, you name it, and would also snare the best seats at a restaurant window. We did however have to move a few times to get to her seat of choice as she would say ' I'm sure someone will have to be placed at the table outside the gent's toilet, it just won't be me. Why be at the back when you can be at the front?' As a child this behavior horrified me but now, as an adult, I realise that I had learned from the best. She was always pleasant but firm got what she wanted.
As a result of my earlier observations, when my conference session started after lunch, I noticed all the women attending came straight to the front. So forget Sheryl's 'leaning in'. That's so last year.
The rallying cry is COME TO THE FRONT!
Psychologist and CEO Ros Taylor Company
London and Edinburgh