Last week, the Labour party announced a mentoring scheme for women in the name of Jo Cox MP which aims to support over 600 women leaders who will be able to make a strong contribution to public life.
The announcement made me think about the wide range of programmes in place and to wonder why we have seen a raft of women’s development schemes and still have a significant under-representation of women in leadership roles, even in sectors where women dominate.
Now, I am in favour of this and similar programmes as I know from personal experience that they are extremely valuable in developing self-confidence which women often seem to lack and is vital for putting yourself forward for opportunities and making your voice heard.
For women to be able to discuss the challenges is absolutely necessary in tackling this issue as they realise they are not alone and are able to learn from the experiences of others. Prominent women have begun sharing their own lessons and this can be invaluable. For example, ever since I read Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’, I make sure I sit at the table, not at the periphery, and believe that my view is as valid as any other.
When you notice something that makes a difference, it’s important to pass on the message and encourage other women to do the same. For too long, women who have made it to the top have pulled the ladder up behind them and those of us climbing the ladder today have a duty to look back and help others to follow.
My belief is that whilst investment into development initiatives is to be welcomed, there are further commitments organisations can make if the really want to make an impact.
An article on women in British politics declares that ‘women aren’t the problem, the parties are’ and I have to agree that there is an entrenched gender bias which holds women back. It’s true in other organisations too.
Over the last seven years, I have been supporting organisations with gender equality initiatives, talking to a wide range of different groups about the barriers for women. You would be amazed by some of the comments I have heard along the way. A common assumption has been ‘but women have babies don’t they?’ and the most recent justification for women not getting involved in committees was ‘they don’t like driving at night’ (I was pretty stunned too).
It’s positive that I am starting to hear of individuals who commit to ensuring gender balance on recruitment panels or refusing to speak at events if there are no women on the programme. Women and indeed male supporters of our plight need to start refusing to participate unless there is gender balance in order to highlight the issue and show that it is important.
We also need to create an environment that women want to be part of. It was a few years ago that I was watching a debate in the House of Commons which was actually about the under-representation of women in parliament. The debate was playing in the office and a colleague said to me ‘what are you watching? The football?’ because she could hear jeering and cheering in the usual Westminster/football stadium style.
It isn’t enough to state an aspiration to support women and provide another leadership programme. We need to develop cultures which allow women to participate and succeed on their own terms.
We need to see a true commitment to breaking down the barriers for women and ensure change happens at a rate that will make a difference.