Monday 11 December 2017

Forget the boardroom, gender balance must start at front office

A new book exposes the many barriers facing young, ambitious women in modern workplaces, writes Colm Kelpie

COMPANIES must make a greater effort to nurture and encourage ambitious young female recruits instead of focusing solely on trying to achieve a gender balance at board level, the author of a new book told the Irish Independent recently.

Elisabeth Kelan, associate professor at King's College London, believes that attention should shift to retaining the highly educated women who are coming through the lower corporate ranks.

Her argument is timely in the wake of International Women's Day.

Research released to coincide with the date showed that women remain under-represented in senior business positions – and the situation is getting worse.

Ms Kelan (33) warns that young, ambitious women may end up leaving the workforce amid "subtle" gender discrimination in certain elements of the corporate world.

"My fear as an academic is that if they are confronted with too many barriers and too much resistance that they don't understand, they will just look for alternatives," Ms Kelan told the Irish Independent.

"Suddenly it becomes more attractive to spend more time with the children than be in the workplace."

Ms Kelan's new book – 'Rising Stars: Developing Millennial Women as Leaders' – is aimed at helping both women and men to deal with the issue of bias in the workplace, and ensure that the right type of talent stays in organisations.

It explores gender and generation through the lens of so-called millennial women and draws on detailed original research carried out over five years – funded by PwC UK.

It gives organisations a crash course in how to understand professional women in their 20s and 30s so that they can develop these employees into future leaders.

Ms Kelan points to several priorities that companies must focus on, including looking at the bias that still exists within organisations. She points as an example to PwC in the UK, which conducts bias awareness training for all staff.

"I think we focus a bit too much on senior level, even though it's very important. I would rather look at the entire pipeline to see what can be done.

"Gender quotas will only be an interim solution. I can't imagine that once we have parity established, we still need them. The problem is the pipeline is still quite thin."

Ms Kelan addressed staff at PwC's Dublin office last Friday, as well as female executives from throughout companies in Dublin.

What has the reaction been to date?

"It (the book) was published last October and I have been quite overwhelmed by the response," she said.

"I had such a good resonance from organisations that suffer from a fatigue of only looking at boards. They actually want to look at the pipeline in a more sustainable way and want to look at millennial women and what can they do for that generation."

Interestingly, Ms Kelan said company chief executives, for the most part, have little difficulty grasping the importance of the concept, while it can be middle management level that struggles with it.

Businesses take heed. The 33-year-old academic comes from the correct pedigree to advise company bosses on the complex topic.

She is the author of several academic articles and two books, with the 'London Times' featuring her as one of the management thinkers to watch.

Of German background but based in London, Ms Kelan, who holds a PhD from the London School of Economics, sits on the advisory boards of the Women's Empowerment Principles, an initiative of UN Women and UN Global Compact and the National Society of High School Scholars Foundation.

Does her research have the potential to reverse the gender balance at senior level over the next 20 years?

"I'm not sure if it's going to be reversed," she said.

"A balance is what we would be aiming for but I still think we need to do some work to ensure that this is happening."

Irish Independent

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