11/01/2013 12:51 GMT | Updated 13/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Female Middle Managers: The Engine Room of the Economy

It seems barely a day goes by without a news item on the number of women on boards. Whether it's the EU looking to introduce quotas for female representation, or news of a FTSE 100 female CEO stepping down, we are bombarded with news of women at the top. However, what's missing in the debate about women on boards is where a steady supply of female senior executives will come from.

It's all very well desperately finding women to sit on boards in an effort to head off compulsory quotas, but for there to be real and lasting change in the boardroom there needs to be large numbers of talented women coming up through the ranks. So how do we address the female talent pipeline?

We know that many female workers are lost at the middle management level, and while raising a family is obviously a factor, we wanted to delve deeper into why so many women stop advancing at this level. Talent management and resourcing solutions provider Alexander Mann Solutions, along with everywoman, commissioned research into how the full potential of female middle managers (FMMs) could be harnessed and the results were interesting.

Our research found that thousands of talented FMMs are unable to break into the ranks of senior management, and UK business could potentially benefit by £5 billion a year if companies unblocked the female talent pipeline.

The report, Focus on the Pipeline: Engaging the full potential of female middle managers, was based on research involving 400 female middle managers and 200 senior HR leaders, from SMEs and corporates, across a range of sectors. It delved into the reasons many FMMs were not making the move from middle to senior management and found some startling differences in the views of the women themselves and senior HR leaders.

The report found that the aspects of work that women were least satisfied with were the lack of opportunities (48 per cent), the likelihood of progression (47 per cent) and the clarity of career path (40 per cent). One of the most worrying findings was that only 11 per cent of FMMs were 'very satisfied' in their jobs, showing that businesses are missing out by not having women in these roles that are fully engaged.

And when FMMs' feelings were contrasted with those of senior HR leaders a real disconnect shone through. While 81 per cent of FMMs feel lack of progression is a problem, just 62 per cent of HR leaders agree. HR leaders think 35 per cent of FMMs want to be promoted in the next two years. However, 56 per cent of women said they wanted to be promoted in that timeframe.

Shockingly, only 40 per cent of HR leaders cited an improved business performance as a benefit of helping women progress beyond middle management into more senior roles in the organisation. The top two benefits they saw for this were improved company culture (46 per cent) and improved recruitment of women into the company (42 per cent). The fact that HR seems to be missing the vital business case for having a more gender diverse workforce is of concern.

We all know that change is easier to make happen when there is a clear business case. And HR needs to start using this business case when talking to the Board about getting more women into senior roles. Study after study has shown real improvements can be made to the bottom line when there is a more balanced leadership team. This is perfect ammunition for HR leaders looking to increase diversity in their company, and for women to bring up with line managers and HR when talking about career advancement opportunities.

But what about women who are in middle management already and who want to continue to rise through the ranks? After 13 years of working with women in business, I know that women can hold themselves back by not expressing the extent of their ambition. Rather than talking about their achievements they wait to be noticed.

So don't be shy in talking about the ways that you make a positive impact on your company. Work with your organisation to improve your communication skills through personal development and clear feedback. Don't simply settle into becoming a frustrated middle manager. If you want to become part of the leadership team, go out there and make it happen!