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Navigating the female leadership labyrinth: what it takes to make it to the top

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By Allie Lawson | Head of SMB brand and marcomms

September 27, 2021 | 7 min read

For an industry that strives for a more diverse workforce, the shifts in gender equality just aren’t enough – but what are the barriers influencing this ‘leadership labyrinth’? Allie Lawson, head of SMB brand and marcomms at Virgin Media O2, explores the inhibitors and enablers to female executive promotion and reveals the harsh reality of what it takes to make it to the top, as told by the few female chief execs.

Female leadership labyrinth

Does your company offer a good deal to women wanting to take maternity leave?

You don’t have to open your eyes very wide to see that women continue to face barriers at many levels of an organization. At my last check, a mere 5% of FTSE100 chief executive roles are held by women, and 7% of the FTSE250. There’s less familiarity with the numbers among the mass of middle managers, but one thing is clear – for women, there tends to be a drop off between senior manager and executive level.

I’m surrounded by friends and colleagues who continually stumble upon the same shared challenges – from how long to wait to have kids, to worries about being forgotten or replaced while on maternity leave. I’m also an ambitious female marketer, and a meticulous planner who has dug out the maternity leave policy of the last few companies I’ve worked at before signing the contract, ‘just in case’ plans change.

But as the primary breadwinner, I can’t afford to not think about these things. I wonder whether I would have always thought about them – or had the experiences I’d had over the last 10 years shaped that? I’m talking about the advice I was once given that I should be prepared to take a step down if and when I returned from maternity leave, or the horror stories I’ve heard, such as women being asked in interviews if they plan to have children soon.

One respondent told me: “When I had my son, I still felt I had to hide my pregnancy from my employer as long as possible, as it was felt to be a hindrance to career development.” Another said: “In a previous company it was straight out said to me that it would not be a good time to start a family and to leave my role or the business.”

The first harsh reality I’m going to share is that many women have to seriously weigh up the impact that having a family will have on their career. Many dread having to make the decision, even if you work for a company that has a strong culture of equality, like Virgin Media O2 offers me.

Inhibitors and enablers to rising through the ranks

I once wondered if it was just me that worried about these things, which is why, in the final part of my Executive MBA at Henley Business School, I researched what I soon found out was dubbed the ‘leadership labyrinth’. I did this by talking to 125 middle managers within FTSE100/250 organizations and five of the few female chief execs of household-name UK brands and media organizations.

Sadly, I found several inhibitors to rising through the ranks, regardless of potential:

  • A lack of time to prioritize personal development

  • Inability to meet expectations of working long hours

  • Taking time out of the office (e.g. maternity leave) or by working part-time

  • General conflicts between work and home.

The good news is, there are some enablers too – so if you know how to play the game, perhaps things can change? Wrong. The second harsh reality is that these enablers are not easy to come by. Not unless you happen to:

  • Have a sponsor (usually an executive-level line manager) who encourages you, opens doors and pushes you into your next role

  • Have an innate motivation to work really, really hard. Oh, and it helps if you have a thirst to keep learning and don’t mind taking risks too

  • Have support at home, specifically a nanny or another parent acting as primary caregiver

  • Avoid time out of the office by taking a short maternity leave and not working part-time hours

It’s the latter two that women in particular stumble on. I found that most women who make it into such senior positions waited until they were at a level in which they could afford a nanny or to be a single income household.

Finding a sustainable solution

So, in lieu of a sustainable solution, what does that mean for organizations and agencies? Here’s some tips I gathered from my research:

  1. Research if your organization’s culture is one that penalizes women who choose to work non-standard hours. You may not even realize it. And showcase executives who work differently. If there’s none to showcase, you probably have a problem.

  2. Have a solid engagement plan for those who are returning to work from maternity leave. I read many stories about return-to-work coaching being hugely successful.

  3. Train line managers to better support the career development of their team members – the impact they have is apparent in how they unlock doors for their team, far beyond generic personal development plan (PDP) exercises.

  4. Do away with generic leadership training and make it outcome-led, making senior leaders accountable for successfully sponsoring individuals that go on such programs.

  5. Ask yourself if you’d be happy with your maternity leave policy if it was your daughter taking it. I have worked with smaller agencies who only offer nine weeks full pay for their employees. To reiterate: do better by your people.

  6. Finally, challenge yourselves to be innovative. I work with VCCP, which has three female account leads, for two roles, with one out of three almost always off on maternity leave. The group and management came to this solution together as a way to keep them engaged in senior roles while letting them enjoy a worry-free mat leave. Don’t ask me how the logistics work, but from a client perspective, it does (and is very inspiring).

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