The Blog

How Schools and Employers Can Help Women Combat the 'Lost Decades'

In education and in the early years of their careers, girls tend to do better than boys. And then what happens - why do there seem to be for so many women two 'lost decades' between thirty and fifty where they are overtaken by men?

Yes, women have come a long way, even in my lifetime. But there is still a long way to go until we can say that women have the same opportunities as their male counterparts to aspire to and achieve positions of leadership - and this is the case in nearly every sector of society. From the worlds of politics (where there are only four women in a cabinet of 27) to the police force (where only 14 per cent of police chief constables are women), we all know the depressing figures.

In education and in the early years of their careers, girls tend to do better than boys. And then what happens - why do there seem to be for so many women two 'lost decades' between thirty and fifty where they are overtaken by men?

There is no easy solution, but there are things that government, educators and employers can be doing more of to help women rise to the top.

You sometimes hear the excuse, 'but they all go off and have babies'. That's not the real issue. It's just that, an excuse. We need to look deeper at what society is doing that is holding women back - from a long hours culture in too many workplaces, to an old boys' network that only likes to promote individuals who look, speak and think like the current leadership.

I believe that part of the solution is for government to introduce quotas for female board members in the UK's top companies. This should be a short-term measure until the representation of women reaches a tipping point. As a pragmatist I am very much in favour of 'what works', and it is clear that quotas for women would make a big difference in a short space of time - you only have to look to Norway's experience to see what a success it has been.

With this exception, we've probably gone as far as we can in terms of legislating for equality. So it is then up to schools and employers to challenge gender stereotypes and recognise what they can be doing to help their female pupils and employees to aim for leadership positions.

During my thirteen years as Managing Director of Penguin, I observed many new entrants to publishing corporations. It did seem to me that there were ways in which girls, either instinctively or because somehow society had built it into them, often did things which held them back in the busy hurly burly of corporate life.

You would see a young woman, with a brilliant degree from a top university, showing all those qualities that got her so far up the educational ladder - attentive, eager to learn, persistent, independent, flexible and organised - doing fantastic work quietly in a corner, thinking to herself 'someone will notice'. But the terrible truth is that no one does - they are just too busy - and there may be a young man a couple of desks along who has done something equally good, who does wave his hands in the air and tell everyone how clever he has been. And guess who catches the Chief Executive's eye?

It is so important for employers to be supportive of women and their career aspirations. They need to make sure their female employees feel validated, giving them the confidence to push themselves. For whatever reason, confidence does not come as easily to most women as it seems to for many men. Of course both sexes need validation, but I would say that companies that want to get the most out of their young women employees, want them to fulfil their potential and stay on through babies or otherwise to rise to the top, should look very carefully at their appraisal process, and make sure that talented women are told directly and to their face how good they are. A validated woman employee will go far.

As head of the largest single educator of girls in the UK, I feel passionately that schools need to equip their girls with the skills to become great leaders - confidence, resilience and not afraid to take risks.

This can be done in the classroom as well as extra-curricular activities, such as sports initiatives, schemes like the Duke of Edinburgh Award, or public speaking competitions. One of our schools, Wimbledon High, even had a 'blow your own trumpet week' this year, encouraging girls to claim their successes, and a 'failure week' last year where distinguished visitors came to talk to the girls about the setbacks of their careers, and how they had overcome them.

It is always going to be harder to change the behaviour of others - the men who are dominant in politics, academia and business - than it is to change the way we as women respond to the workplace. Our aim is for our girls to leave their schools and universities believing that they can do anything. Not to get discouraged so that they drop out at 30, but to stick at it through their thirties and forties, and come out on top, into that promised land of a society where women do play an equal part in leadership in every sphere.