White Paper on Women Empowerment – Institute of Employment

Women Empowerment

Despite long‐standing anti‐discrimination legislation in the US, UK and across Europe, women still remain under‐represented in many occupations, most noticeably in high‐level posts. This phenomenon is seen at its most extreme when the composition of company boards is considered. In the USA, women constitute on average 14.7 per cent of board members on Fortune 500 companies; in the UK, women hold 11 per cent of FTSE 100 directorships, according to the 2008 Sex and Power report published by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Encouraging women who hold senior management positions to move into board‐ level positions is viewed as a crucial part of the global drive to improve equality between men and women. There is likely to be a range of reasons why women in senior jobs fail to progress up to board level and issues connected with discrimination and the ‘glass ceiling’ have been well characterised. However, in some cases there may be an element of choice: some women may simply decide not to progress to board level despite being coached for and offered such positions.

An understanding of the full range of factors that underlie women’s decisions to accept promotion to board level or not, as well as of the factors already known to hold some aspiring women back, may provide valuable insights into the dynamics at play within the workplace. This issue is not just of academic interest: ensuring that a greater number of women ascend to the level of board member is a key current issue in terms of executive coaching. If a greater understanding can be gained of the reasons why eligible female senior management members do, or do not, attempt the move up to board level, then this will inform the development of better – or different – coaching strategies to help support women managers’ career progression.

For this reason, the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) requested grant funding from the Foundation of Coaching in New York to examine the factors underlying women’s progress through organisational structures and the reasons why women in senior management positions in the USA and in Europe decide to accept or decline board‐level jobs. The research would explore these issues by interviewing women about the factors that encouraged and/or slowed their career progression, along with the reasons for their decisions regarding whether or not to take up board‐level positions. The aim of the work was to inform the debate in the US and worldwide and to support the development of further coaching topics and strategies to help greater numbers of women progress into senior and board‐level positions, and thereby improve female representation on company boards.

This study found that although the legislative and socio‐cultural background differs between countries, and some issues are more prominent in some countries than in others, there was nonetheless a large degree of consensus among and between interviewees in the different countries regarding the factors that impinge upon women’s career progression.

It must be recognised that some national structural factors and legislative decisions are supra‐ordinate to organisational functioning and coaching – such as decisions on whether to introduce quotas for women on boards – and these are less amenable to resolution through coaching. Although such issues fall outside the specified research focus – on factors with which coaches can engage to improve the position of women – they are nonetheless important components of the employment landscape as a whole, and are therefore included.


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