Thinking differently about female talent. How can education and business optimise the potential of talented women?

The Girls Day School trust (GDST) is the leading network of independent girls’ schools in the UK, educating approximately 8% of all girls at UK independent schools and holds the belief that girls learn and develop better in a female only environment. Crelos consultant Libby Ferguson was invited to speak at the GDST annual Head of Six Form conference on the topic of “Thinking differently about female talent. How can education and business optimise the potential of talented women?”

The topic of developing more female business leaders is being widely discussed in Putney High School and across the GDST. Deputy Head Suzie Longstaff introduced the session by saying “In the Girls Day School Trust we focus on developing the next generation of business leaders. Female business leaders. It is incredibly important for us to understand the changes that are being made and the work that others are doing in the business world to open doors and facilitate the path for future female business women.”

At the start of the session some of the key facts and figures about women in business today were highlighted; although women represent 42% of the UK’s workforce and 55% of university graduates, they only account for 6.1 % of FTSE 100 executive positions, 3% of board Chair positions and on average earn £140,000 less than their male counterparts over their working careers 1.

The challenges for women wanting to get in to the senior ranks in business are now well known, but include the lack of female role models, the high cost of child care, businesses not being set up for flexible working and the fact that that many senior roles are not advertised, but use a “band of brothers” network.

Since the Davis report of 2011 business has responded by setting up groups and initiatives including the 30% Club, the FTSE female index and the Government: Think, Act, Report framework to encourage diversity and inclusion in the work place. The Heads of Sixth form in the room were interested to hear about the Breaking the Mould Awards which celebrate forward-looking companies which have schemes in place to ensure women are well represented in their boardrooms. Knowing about these companies could allow the educators to form relationships with them and point their female pupils in the right direction for work experience and role models.

These initiatives are proving to be working, but talented women are still opting out of corporate life around their 30s. Some of the suggestions for educators to help with this issue include:

Developing a strong, effective network is important for career progression and the different ways that men and women network and the challenges that this brings about was discussed in some detail. For example, men tend to network with people more powerful than themselves, while women tend to network with peers and for social reasons. Men are more central to their network, so are thought about more readily for that new opportunity or role, while women are often more peripheral to their network. These differences often mean that women have networks that are less useful when thinking about promotion or the next career step.
Suggestions were given for pupils to start thinking about building their brand, network and leadership capability:

Attendees seemed pleased that they were already promoting a number of the points discussed within their schools. However, they recognised the need to build better links with the business world and experts in the field over diversity and inclusion and leadership in order to give their girls the best chance of success. Summarising the session Suzie Longstaff said “Crelos are clearly an outstanding leader in this field and their lead is invaluable in helping us to understand and develop our successful programmes and a curriculum that will give our students the best possible opportunities in the future”.

Although progress is slow, the pace of change is increasing with only 48 female board appointments now required to meet the target of the FTSE 100 having 25% women on boards by the end of 2015.2 The focus now should be on building the pipeline of female leadership talent and education can play a key role in this by ensuring their female pupils have the confidence, skills and right information to exploit opportunities and achieve their potential. After all, gender diversity around the executive table and in the boardroom makes good business sense. 3