Talent war could mean business for women

21st March 2006, Comments 0 comments

Will changing demographics finally shift the workplace gender balance in women's favour? Are companies doing enough to attract potential female leaders? Some top women gave their views at a recent 'Women in Leadership' forum in Amsterdam last week.

One of the main questions lingering in the back of the minds of many of the young women in the room, students, recent graduates and early career movers invited by organisers QS Top Career Forums and voiced by one attendee was: why do so few of the qualified and talented women entering the marketplace make it to the top?

Research, said keynote speaker Carole Brennan of QS, still shows that women are well in the minority in the top jobs, despite nearly equal numbers of qualified men and women entering companies and professional firms. The numbers drop off alarmingly in relation to the level of seniority, so that by the time you get to board level female representation is minuscule.

For example, women hold only 8 percent of board directorships in Europe, according to research by run by the European Professional Women's Network in partnership with Egon Zehnder International.

"The Netherlands still lags behind many other countries when it comes to promoting women into senior managerial positions," says Brennan.

"The recent survey by Egon Zehnder and WIN found that women only occupy 7 percent of board seats in Dutch companies compared to 22 percent in Norway and 20 percent in Sweden. And research by the Central Bureau of Statistics indicates that less 6 percent of people earning in excess of EUR 100,000 in the Netherlands are women."

Women themselves are seen as perpetuating this state of affairs through choosing to opt out rather than sacrificing personal or family life in order to 'succeed'. At a certain point in their lives, literature has it that women simply choose to go for a job which gives them a better work-life balance, whether this means shifting role within a large company or starting their own businesses. 

However, some companies are realising that many promising female employees leave, not because they can't 'hack it' but because they've lost faith in the institutions they've worked for and are tired of business cultures created for, and driven by, a male oligarchy.

But don't expect change to happen overnight, said Margot Scheltema, Finance Director of Shell, the Netherlands, reminding that women only started breaking into businesses and leadership roles around 30 years ago.

Women, we need you

Saskia van der Meij, Head of Management development at Dutch bank Rabobank, however, is concerned about time running out. "We must get more women in," she said. The inflow of young, highly educated, talented people is decreasing. The population is retiring. For instance, a lot of highly educated women, who stepped out of work need to get back in. Businesses need women to realise their new strategies."

With this in mind, Rabobank aims to have women making up 20 percent of their top management staff by 2008.

Changing company culture may become a matter of survival.

"Demographics will certainly pull more women into senior roles and will be one of the drivers for culture change," agreed Scheltema, who revealed that Shell is developing new HR policies to help maintain good work-life balance through focussing on the different phases of life employees pass through. 

For example, she explained, "At the end of a career, an employee may have less appetite for overseas work, but they should be encouraged to share knowledge."

Is flexi-working a powerful option?

But when it comes to flexible working, Scheltema believes that although this form of working works well for some jobs, in truly senior positions you simply need both the commitment and to put the hours in. "Of course pregnancies can be accommodated," she said.

But Marina Wielders, Manager of Diversity and Flexibility at DSM, sees no lessening of commitment in people working part-time. "It is a choice," said Wielders.

Don't hide, it's the difference that counts

"Flexibility is needed so we can get different angles into business. We need 'mix' to innovate," said Wielders, who recognises that changing people's behaviour is one of the greatest challenges companies face.

And we aren't just talking about gender here, Scheltema from Shell, added, "Having senior women on board doesn't always mean diversity. Different types of male leaders also create diversity."

One of the forum guests remarked that male friends of hers in Norway complain that now women get preference over their equally talented male counterparts due to the Norwegian Board quota legislation, a law requiring existing stock companies to reserve at least 40 percent of places on their boards for women and to achieve this within the next two years.

Replying, Van der Meij had little doubt that such legislation is useful. "Legal matters force men to look outside the box. We need this sort of legislation to bring about change," she said.

Scheltema agreed that governments providing fiscal rewards for compliance – or sanctions for non-compliance – was part of the way forward. However, she believes that companies also need to help through introducing work practices and schemes to promote talented women.

And women themselves need to have dedication and commitment, added Scheltema, who believes that we should be responsible for developing our own talents. "Push them," she said, "Not necessarily in business but in life!"

"Be yourself," advised DSM's Marina Wielders said, "Don't feel you have to be more 'male'."

Or, in the words of Inge van den Broek, international sportswoman and co-founder of talent centre Paluka, in her opening speech, "Take the risk to be yourself. The greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing."

20 March 2006

The Women in leadership forum in Amsterdam is part of a series of events being organised across Europe by international career development company QS.
Visit www.qsforums.com for information on future events.

[Copyright Expatica 2006]

Subject: Diversity management, talent management

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