Last month, Carolyn Fairbairn, the head of the CBI, told the FT that “we don’t have enough women running things and it’s not getting better anything like fast enough. Too much of UK business is still geared up for men, in terms of its social habits, its small talk, its clubbiness.” Fairbairn went on to call for a 25 per cent target for female senior executives on the basis that “women as leaders” was the real issue, not just board seats.
Uh-oh. Carolyn Fairbairn sits on my board – the CJBS Advisory Board. Should I express “caution with any target proposal”, as the business community does? Making comments on women and leadership can feel like a complicated issue, but it’s a vital one, one that we should all, women and men, engage with no matter how tricky it might seem. I will venture a few comments anyway.
To cut to the chase, I fully support Carolyn Fairbairn’s call. Even if you disregard the central issue of fairness and gender equality, it is now well established that mixed leadership teams are better, because they are better capable of generating and pursuing diverse ideas.
That’s not to say that our record at CJBS is unblemished – yes, we had a female Director 10 years ago (Sandra Dawson, a brilliant leader, who created a basis for excellence on which we are building today). And yes, our most senior administrative officers (with whom I work every day) are women, and the driver of our successful Accelerate Cambridge programme is a woman. But we have too few female faculty, and certainly too few senior female faculty. One can see Carolyn Fairbairn’s “male social habits and small talk” in action.
We are working on it. We hired seven outstanding faculty members last year, of which five are women, three of them senior. We are home to some of the world’s leading researchers on gender issues (including Sucheta Nadkarni, who this year is examining how quotas, among other factors, impact on female representation in executive teams). We have launched a Women’s Leadership Initiative that will create opportunities for female students and academics, encouraging them and building their confidence to pursue leadership positions. Our Women in Law programme is behind the market-leading FLUX magazine which champions women leaders. We also sponsor the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award at the prestigious Business Weekly Awards.
Over time, we will change the character of our own institution. But for the wider goal of increasing female leadership in business (and public organisations), broader changes will be needed, encompassing policy (on issues such as parental leave), social attitudes to the roles of fathers and mothers in childrearing, individual self-confidence, and indeed, the very definition of what leadership is.
On the last point, I remember once hearing a senior manager telling young recruits that “this is a tough career, and if you do not get at least to the brink of a divorce at least once, you haven’t pushed hard enough.” This is the archetypical definition of “male” leadership, being the hunter and cowboy who can leave the womenfolk behind and move on if required (without much feeling whatsoever). In my view, this is the nub of the issue: if we are to take full advantage of the improvement that female leaders can bring to an organisation, the very concept of what leadership means has to change.