We all know the disappointing statistics on women reaching senior levels in any field but especially in the private sector, in Parliament and in the Courts. But what is really stopping women getting there and why is progress so glacial? The answer coming out increasing strongly is "it's the culture, stupid!" At Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, one of the three remaining colleges for women, we have just undertaken a survey of our alumnae for our 60th Anniversary to examine their career and life experiences.
Of the respondents, just under 1,000 women, 38% said that the most difficult career challenge they found is the non-supportive culture of the workplace. This included bullying, gender discrimination, not having their work valued and a general sense of having to try harder than men. Shockingly, this is just as high in the 20-29 year old group, at 31%, as it is for older age groups. This response from young women rather challenges the view that we will gradually overcome our difficulties as more women climb the career ladder. So, the problem continues despite changes to the law on Equal Opportunities and despite many initiatives to help women succeed. Just to be clear, this concern was much higher than the challenges of balancing work and family life which was 22% overall.
This finding mirrors what McKinsey found in their 'Women Matter' work in the private sector. Companies have established a whole range of practical initiatives but change still doesn't come through.
We also asked our women what would be appealing or unappealing to them in an organisation. What they want is to have the chance to make a difference, to have their voice heard, to be valued and for progress to be based on merit. Many women said how surprised they had been after leaving the University of Cambridge to find that so often progress was not based on merit.
Again, from other studies we know that many women in the private sector decide to set up their own business because they find the work environment so unconducive.
All this says to me that we need a real dialogue with the many empathetic men there are, about how we can make progress to bring about this badly needed deep seated culture change. Of course, many men want these changes themselves, not least because they often see what is happening to their partners and have to try to support them. In our survey, apart from sheer drive and determination to overcome challenges, it was partners who were cited by the women as giving the most support.
In my previous role as Chief Executive of Oxfam I was very privileged to work in an environment where there was real equality, with an even balance of men and women on the governing council and on the management team. That mixed environment was successful, collaborative and fun. But it is an organisation where the values are firm and at least the attempt to be truly equal and provide a conducive workplace for women is taken very seriously. That this is at least partly achieved in even the poorest countries of the world shows that change is possible. There has to be a strong sense of "this is the way we do things around here" which permeates every level and every activity.
We do need the initiatives to make good child care available, we do need women to develop networking skills but these simply are not enough. It has to be a real change in the values and culture of organisations so that the skills of women are better understood and the way they go about doing things is much more appreciated. What do I mean by that?
Once in my career as a Regional Director in the NHS, a colleague in a similar job accused me of not really wanting to hit waiting list targets. I was supported then by another saying "I didn't hear her say that, she is just going about it a different way from you". It was important, and extremely welcome, to have that support from a particular male colleague; how much better though to have our different skills and ways of working recognised and accepted as the norm in our work setting.
Unless we see a true cultural shift and change of attitude throughout the fabric of our workplaces, no matter how hard a college like Murray Edwards tries, it will still be difficult for our women to have the impact they aspire to in the world.