Women at the top

It was International Women’s Day last Friday and I was privileged to give a speech to the Welsh WEA on women at the top. 

When the WEA was first established in 1903, it was only going to be for working men. But women made a contribution from the start and was soon very supportive of the suffragette movement and the campaigned for equal rights for women. 

Although much has been achieved over the last 110 years, it is also shocking how much further we need to go.

There is still a massive pay gap between men and women – 19.5% in the UK according to the European Commission, which is even worse than the European average of 16% lower. Research by the Chartered Management Institute shows at current rates of progress it will take another 57 years to close the gap.

Meanwhile, female unemployment recently reached its highest for 23 years and is now at over a million. 

While the government has set up initiatives like the Women’s Business Council, these predominately focus on top earners without addressing the need for a pipeline of future managers and workers.  

So what is to be done?

One of the key factors which may limit career aspirations of women is the desire to have a work/life balance and a preference for less extreme jobs that can be combined with the caring and nurturing roles adopted by women and respected within their communities. 

This is not just about child-bearing.  

Women also are connected with their communities – they prize relationships, they enjoy volunteering and caring roles many coping with both ends of the age spectrum.

So where do we go from here? 

Should we accept that the best ways for senior managers and leaders to behave is to embrace longer and longer hours, more stress, less collaborative working and less and less time for study and reflection? 

Is this the recipe for a healthier/happier Britain and a more resilient economy?  

I sincerely doubt it. 

Women, in my opinion, get this.  

They are naturally more collaborative. They attribute value to their family lives and, as employers, we need their skills and their differences. 

Perish the thought that in 2013 it is time to adjust the workloads for both men and women so that we make better decisions and work fewer hours.

Perhaps we need to take advantage of technology rather than let it take advantage of us. 

Put limits on the use of email/internet at weekends – reinstating the right to clock off.

Bring in fairer co-division of work for parents.

It’s not just about allowing both sexes to have family and caring leave.

It is about lowering our expectations so there is an acceptance about shorter working hours.

Increasing our creativity.

Creating space for people to think.

Think longer term. 

Let me leave you with some good news.

Recent research by the Sunday Times based on the Office of National Statistics data shows that women are working for longer and many more are starting up businesses. Since 2008 employment amongst older women over 50 has risen faster than any other group. Women also accounted for 80% of the 147,000 rise in self-employment between 2008 and 2011.

Whilst economic pressures are continuing this pattern, the majority of these women say they are returning to work because they need a challenge. These women are bringing valuable expertise back to work and can create many more jobs for the UK as a whole.

Let’s focus on how we can help these small businesses thrive and prosper.

Ruth Profile


One thought on “Women at the top

  1. Andria Birch

    It is great to see such strong support for this issue from all levels of the WEA and from all genders in recognition of the absurdity of such levels of inequality in the 21st Century.

    We have just announced our latest Women into Politics activity in the East Midlands, following on from the campaign launch event in November at which Ruth was a guest speaker. Since then we have also planned and run several women into politics themed courses. It is so refreshing that in the WEA a commitment to equality is not just rhetoric but is actively supported and resourced. This reflects recognition that ‘it should inform and run as a thread through everything we do’ (to quote my colleague Barbara Stirrup). Thank you for clear leadership on this issue, it helps to re-energise us all in such challenging times.

    Please see below for link to the latest WIP activities:


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