Leadership diversity - Could unconscious conservatism be stopping women reaching CEO?

Could “unconscious conservatism” be stopping women from reaching CEO?

Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House has commented that the progression of women leaders in FTSE 100 companies is “woefully low”.

Highlighting her concerns around diversity in leadership, she said if things don’t improve, she would be in support of such measures as quotas.

Rebuck discussed her concerns on FTSE 100 companies with journalist and TV presenter Mariella Frostrup at the Oxfordshire Publishing Group Summer Conference:

“I’m moving towards quotas actually. Quite close. I’m waiting to see where the numbers go both in terms of boards and pipeline before I pronounce. If we’re not going in the right direction, you will find me nailing my colours to the quota mast.”

Rebuck remains hopeful for an upturn in the poor diversity statistics. Reflecting on the historical success publishing has had promoting female executives, she predicts a “next wave” in the next decade or so where “women will percolate to the top” in publishing.

Commenting on the current situation, Rebuck said: “Interestingly most women CEO’s have now for one reason or another left the industry. Either because they’re too old like me or gone on to do other things.

We have a large number of women at divisional level, very good numbers, but very few – not anyone – at the top as a CEO of one of the ‘Big Five’.”

On a wider scale, Rebuck speculates that economic difficulties could be causing the “unconscious conservatism” amongst boards when deciding whether or not to progress women to the top echelons of business.

“I’m afraid they tend to revert to people like them,” she said. “I don’t think it’s conscious necessarily, but there was a kind of  ‘oh my god, things are terrible, let’s go back to the trusted than take a risk on getting this woman up through the ranks’; and I’m not talking about publishing now.”

Describing her own experiences of juggling motherhood and her career, she divulged that for her there was no “agonising” over the decision, despite any guilt she felt.

She said she felt a responsibility to herself, her daughters and to other women “to keep going to show it could be done and things will sort themselves out”. She remarked: “Whereas now I think women are presented with all the things that could go wrong.”

 “One of the biggest problems young women have is they have a sense of needing to be a perfect executive and at the same time a perfect mother – neither is possible,” she added.

When posed the question by Bloomsbury’s founder Nigel Newton that it is “tough” being a CEO in the modern world, where everything moves so fast, and it wasn’t necessarily for everyone, Rebuck agreed.

She revealed that whilst in the role of CEO “there was a level of stress that was pretty constant and difficult to wind down from” and that the job could also be “lonely”.

She said: “I think it takes a certain type, however my only point is ‘that type’ could be a woman or a man. At the moment it’s rather skewed towards men, so all I would say is allow women that opportunity should they want to – and allow men the opportunity not to.”

How is your organisation improving diversity by progressing women to the top echelons?

Why do you think so few FTSE 100 companies have women CEOs?

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