Phil O'Reilly - Women's influence in business - how can it be greater?

Posted 8 July 2013

400x255 Phil ORielly

Phil O’Reilly is Chief Executive Business NZ

I see capable, skilled, ambitious women in workplaces every day. Some are outstanding in their performance and potential and will clearly have careers that take them as far as they want to go. But not all will reach their potential.

Barriers still exist, making it harder for women to achieve at the highest level. Expectations are perhaps the highest barrier - expectations that only a few women will run successful businesses or get the top job.

We need to have a widely shared expectation that a lot of women will succeed at the highest levels.
We should be expecting lots of women to start their own businesses. More business start-ups owned by women would surely be the precursor to many big, brilliant businesses owned by women.

My impression is that there actually are more women starting businesses these days, creating more role models for girls and young women to emulate. I hope this trend continues. Having many examples of successful women business owners is a powerful stimulus for more.

We should also be expecting to see far more women taking on leadership roles in companies and other organisations.
Many entry level positions are taken by young women, and the penetration of women into higher levels of many businesses continues to advance. But the ranks of chief executive, board member and chair are still noticeably lacking women.
Part of this is to do with choices made by girls and young women when at school and tertiary education, and with choices made in early employment.

At school, girls should be encouraged to choose quantitative subjects – sciences, technology and maths – so they can advance further in career paths with good potential.

In tertiary education, young women should be encouraged to choose quantitative, career-related studies. The pathways to career success are generally greater in subjects like engineering and various technologies than in arts or humanities.
And in employment, women more often need to pursue line positions - those relating to the core work of a business - rather than staff or support positions.

Of course, many will still want to pursue careers in the arts, humanities or caring professions or undertake support roles in business, but generally, a greater uptake of more technical subjects and focus on core work roles would help more women advance further.

Companies have a responsibility for women’s advancement. There is much that can be done, including providing mentoring, divergent career choices, truly family-friendly workplaces and role models.
The impetus for this should come from the top level of the company and should be targeted at women at all levels within the company.

While there may be supportive policies in place for junior women staff, more senior women executives may find it hard to advance to the top job or to a board position.

Limited expectations may be at work here. We could do more to set the expectation that the women will reach the top. Companies could help their prospects by, for example, promoting their senior women executives as possibilities for board positions in other companies.

As influence tends to flow from the top, current business leaders have a great opportunity to set expectations around women in leadership.

With greater influence, women will undoubtedly create change in the business environment overall.
I look forward to it.