• Breaking the reinforced-glass ceiling - Supporting women to reach the highest level

Breaking the reinforced-glass ceiling - Supporting women to reach the highest level

"We want to create a supportive and collaborative network that will inspire skilled and talented women to reach the highest level"

Chan Kataria, Chief Executive

chan kataria

Women may have been given the vote 100 years ago, but they are still far from being equal when it comes to steering businesses at the highest level.

One of our core values is diversity, and more often than not we get it right when it comes to gender equality: at emh group 50% of our executive team and three of the nine new Property Services multi-trade apprentices are women. At the highest level, however, the Group Board has only three women out of eight independent members, and when we recently advertised for a new Chair, out of 28 strong applications less than half a dozen were from women.

Our stated mission is to “improve opportunities for people”, not just white, British, middle-aged men. How can we improve opportunities for staff and customers if our Board does not reflect the demographics of the communities we serve? And it is not just about numbers. I believe that a gender-balanced Board will make better decisions.

The obvious question is: what is stopping women from securing places on Boards?

The recent Hampton-Alexander Review, which challenged FTSE 350 companies to make sure that by 2020 at least a third of their Board members were women, gives us a clue. Some of the more ridiculous reasons given for not having more women on top company Boards include “women don’t fit in”, “most women don’t want the hassle”, “we have one already, so we are done”, and “all the good women have already been taken”. It seems that some men are doing their best to reinforce the glass ceiling.

Among the FTSE 100 companies, 29% of Board members are women. That figure rises to a slightly more respectable 36% for housing associations, but we can and must do better.

So what are we dong to attract more women to our Boards? Mixed interview panels and anonymous shortlisting? All well and good, but they do not address the underlying issues, specifically gender bias and perception.

In a recent case study by Columbia Business School, the same candidate was presented to a group of people as a former entrepreneur who had co-founded a very successful technology company and become an executive at Apple before turning to venture capitalism. When presented as “Howard” the candidate was rated as highly competent and effective, and found to be likeable and appointable. However, when the candidate was presented as “Heidi” the same people found her to be competent and effective, but they did not like her or want to work with her.

The only thing to infer from this is that whereas entrepreneurship and self-confidence are celebrated in men, the same qualities in women are perceived as arrogance and self-promotion.

It has been said that men will apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, whereas women will only apply if they meet 100%. And it is not that women feel they cannot do the job, they just feel it is not worth applying unless they are fully qualified. It is important that this statistic continues to circulate as it shines a light on the fact that not everyone is playing the game the same way. When more women know that others are applying for posts even if they do not fully meet the criteria, more will feel free to do the same.

To address these issues, not just for emh group but for the wider benefit of the sector and beyond, we have created our own Women on Boards programme in partnership with 3DK Solutions. Using our joint networks and relationships, we identified and approached eight women who have the necessary skills and potential to become Board members. Through a series of workshops, one-to-ones, and observations of our Board meetings, the programme will give participants an insight into the role of Board members and the positive impact an effective Board has on an organisation. They will also receive inspiration from successful women Board members, and be given coaching on applying for Board positions and how best to prepare for interviews.

We want to create a supportive and collaborative network that will inspire skilled and talented women to reach the highest level. Only when we have gender-balanced Boards will we be able to say that our businesses are being steered by a group of people that fully and truthfully represent the communities we serve.