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Why senior women matter

Having more women in senior positions not only improves diversity, it lifts up other people too

You would have to have been living on Mars not have noticed the diversity drumbeat over the last 12 months. Ever since George Floyd was brutally killed by a white policeman on 25 May 2020, begging for mercy and whispering ‘I can’t breathe’, every organisation has looked to their own institutional bias and examined their own diversity policies.

When it comes to race there is much work to be done. Research I commissioned last summer as chair of Women in Journalism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests showed that not a single front page article in the week we monitored the UK press was written by a black journalist. Only one black person was quoted. That is, of course, not good enough. And it is not only the British media which has a long way to go when it comes to being representative of all the people who make up this country.

But there is  amidst all of this another important cohort whose story is not being heard – and who are key players in ensuring diversity and fairness improve within organisations: senior women. Yes, our very own Noon demographic.

The pandemic affect on all women

Females have been hit hard by the pandemic across all age groups. Studies all over the world show Covid putting equality for women back by a generation. Women are hit hard by the double shift, increased domestic responsibilities — particularly home schooling — looking after elderly relatives, housework, etc. (My favourite statistic in all of this is that the only families where men do 50% of the house chores are where the women are the main breadwinners, and even then chaps only do half….) McKinsey found that worldwide women’s job losses have been nearly twice as high as men’s. The situation is even worse for senior women.

According to the World Economic Forum report into the Gender Pay Gap 2021, “LinkedIn data shows a marked decline of women’s hiring into leadership roles, creating a reversal of one to two years of progress across multiple industries”, it singles out “severe destruction of overall roles” for women in the consumer sector, non-profits and media and communication, with a marked difference “between men and women’s likelihood to make an ambitious job switch.”

The talent pipeline affects senior females

The Frampton Alexander review reflects this battering of senior female talent, finding many companies had lost their female talent pipeline during the pandemic and that out of 6,000 possible jobs in the below board-level layer (the marzipan beneath the icing), women were only being appointed to 2,000 of them. One construction firm I talked to admitted they had lost half of their female talent pipeline over the last year. They are far from the only ones.

Why does senior female talent matter?

So why does the haemorraging of senior female talent matter? First, because at the top of all organisations, not just businesses but government, academia, medicine etc, women only make up 20-25% of leaders.  At the top of UK business, despite some progress on Non Executive Directors, it is even worse: only five women currently lead FTSE 100 companies. Depressingly, it will take nearly another 135 years for women to reach leadership parity (according to the WEF) and losing senior women who are our best chance of being the leaders of tomorrow from the pipeline means that time line to equality just elongates further.

Many senior women know  all too well what it is like to be the ‘only’ in the room.

Apart from the innate injustice of women being half the population but only 5-25% of its leaders is how we suffer from not giving them a chance. When women do lead, they do so with aplomb; countries with female leaders in the pandemic have seen far fewer deaths than those led by men… given a choice between Brazil’s Bolsonaro and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ahern, I know whom I’d choose! Additionally, new research from Women in the Workplace (McKinsey and Leanin.org proves that  losing senior women from organisations also hits culture and diversity.

What senior women add to the workplace

“If we lose senior level women in leadership, it hurts other women and women of colour at every level,” the study says. Why? Because senior women nurture their work forces.

  • Companies with 50% or more women in senior leadership perform better (are more likely to outperform their competitors) and have healthier cultures
  • Senior-level women are more likely than senior level men to be mentors, sponsors and allies to more diverse cohorts.
  • Over 50% of senior women say they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equity at work (compared to under 40 per cent of senior level men),
  • 40% of senior women sponsor or mentor other women including women of colour (compared to 23% of senior men)
  • 63% of senior women actively listen to stories of women of colour experiencing mistreatment compared to 40% of other colleagues)
  • and 61% of senior women take a public stand for gender equality compared to 28% of employees overall.

Women bring more diversity

I began this piece with the tragedy of George Floyd. Over the last year, companies have finally been waking up to the need for greater diversity and representation, which is great. But as these statistics show, diversity begets diversity. We can now prove that the expulsion of senior women from an organisation removes diversity champions who bring on the next generation of more diverse leaders. This isn’t surprising. When I started on The Sunday Times, I was often the only woman in the conferences where the news agenda was decided. More often than I care to admit, I would be asked: “Eleanor, what do women think about this?”

Senior women can be allies

Many senior women know  all too well what it is like to be the “only” in the room. They understand exclusion, the effect of microaggressions, how the majority group can leave you out without even realising. Many of us had to battle for flexibility to look after our loved ones – children or ageing parents – and face the discrimination and sly looks that often came with it. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that older senior women are more sympathetic to the plight of people of colour or others who don’t fit the majority paradigm. It stands to reason that senior women often act as allies to those wanting to transform culture, are a conduit to powerful leaders and have the clout to force change.

Ageism and sexism combined

Currently the economy is expanding – as Noon’s career expert Lisa Unwin puts it, “It’s a candidate-driven market”. I just hope that this means the trends of the last year where senior women have so often been the first out of the door are reversed. And that organisations look at this new research and pause to think before removing a woman in midlife about the role she is playing in progressing that company’s culture (as well as being great at her job, of course).

Too often, midlife for women is where ageism meets sexism. It is when women become less pleasing, both physically and in terms of being eager to be agreeable and pliant. Just as women shed the imposter syndrome and feel confident and able to wield their power, when their children are grown and the double shift ends, they get whacked. This matters both in terms of broader equality and justice and in terms of the culture of organisations. Age is a protected characteristic of equality legislation too; companies need Noon women. Let’s make sure our voices are heard.

More on women in senior role

Watch Eleanor discuss The broken talent pipeline: what next for women over 50? with Ann Francke from the Chartered Management Institute.


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