THE BLOG
23/12/2013 05:03 GMT | Updated 19/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Harnessing and Nurturing Talent Will Help Women Climb the Career Ladder

There continues to be much conversation about the lack of women reaching senior leadership roles and rightly so. As a nation, despite the many and varied diversity initiatives which businesses have introduced, we still don't seem to be making much progress. A report by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) published in November found that while the majority (60 per cent) of junior managers are female, the figure drops to just 40 per cent of middle managers and then falls to a mere fifth (20 per cent) of senior staff.

Recently, our recruitment team surveyed students and recent graduates to understand their career attitudes and ambitions. With only a few exceptions, there wasn't much difference between answers from male and female respondents. Unsurprisingly, career-wise women graduates want the same as men.

When we asked female students and graduates where they hoped to be in 10 years, the majority (57%) chose a senior management position. This suggests that young women are looking forward to their career with drive and a desire to progress into high-ranking positions. However, 19% of the young women we spoke to also said they could see themselves reducing work commitments to start a family, compared to only seven per cent of men. And almost twice as many women as men saw themselves not working in order to care for their family.

Companies like Enterprise are having to confront the reality that there are several factors holding women back. Some of the reasons, as the CMI has indicated, has to do with corporate cultures that are unsupportive of women. A key recommendation to businesses from the CMI's report, 'Tackling the Talent Pipeline' is for them to embrace flexible working, both for women and men. A career path that lets women, and an increasing number of men, come off the career ladder for a spell without sacrificing their employability is crucial in helping employees reach the top. However, at the same time, there are innate factors and powerful cultural stereotypes that affect how many women are reaching the top of organisations.

There is no question that flexible working has enabled many women to stay as involved in work as they want to if they decide to start a family. 'Phase back' programmes, which allow employees who are returning to work after maternity leave to have a reduced schedule over a period of time while being compensated at 100% of pay, are useful aids too.

However, in our business, we recognised that the stage when we were losing the most women was as they transitioned from junior to middle management. This is often quite early on in their careers and before work/life balance issues have even become an issue.

To understand the problem, we investigated why more men than women were coming forward for middle management roles. We observed that there is an informal "sponsorship" that happens between junior employees and their managers in social occasions. Watch the behaviour of employees at break times during workshops and away days. There is a common tendency for men and women to diverge in social situations.

This kind of informal sponsorship or mentoring may sound insignificant but it is important. Because we had more male than female middle managers, this "informal sponsorship" was causing the situation to exacerbate. This led us to introduce company-wide mentoring schemes, where aspiring female employees are paired up with a senior sponsor who provides advice, coaching and helps the employee network with senior people in the company.

Another issue we uncovered at Enterprise was that we still find talented women are more reticent to put themselves forward for positions than men. This is echoed in the CMI report, which identified that some women fear failure and don't do justice to their own achievements, suggesting that society puts less expectation on women than men to succeed in the corporate environment.

To try to remedy this, our Women in Leadership group sponsors a 'confidence building' training series to help advance women. And our Women's Leadership Forum gave forty top performing female employees the chance to interact with Directors on a one-to-one and group basis. These helped women build networks and forge useful relationships.

Our ambition survey also showed young women have a surprisingly low number of female role models. Respondents cited their father, Alan Sugar and Richard Branson more frequently than any woman. This is echoed by CMI research, which concludes that too many workplaces "do not have role models that the talent pipeline can identify with."

Acting as mentors, our directors have instilled self-belief and improved the confidence of many women, giving them the drive to push for promotion. Through regular discussions, a relationship evolves focused on how the female candidate needs to prepare in order to progress to the next level, what adjustments may need to be made, how to find solutions to work/life balance and how to manage logistical issues that can often create false barriers to progression.

If as businesses, we create the right policies and practices to embrace the flexibility that women - and families - will need through various life stages, and if alongside this we are alert to innate cultural and personal traits which may subtly hold women back, we should be in a strong position to harness the ambition and drive of this emerging generation of female graduates. Because our research left us in no doubt that women want to lead as much as men.