Where are the female leaders? - RSA

Where are the female leaders?

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  • Picture of Verena Hefti FRSA
    Verena Hefti FRSA
  • Leadership

Earlier this month, it was International Women’s Day 2017 and the media have been surprisingly quiet about the huge leadership gender gap across society. Verena Hefti FRSA argues we need to talk about combining children with a leadership career.

You’d think 101 years after women first voted, the gender gap in leadership roles would be closing fast, but that is just not the case: only seven out of the FTSE 100 companies are led by women, and the situation remains bad in female dominated sectors too: in teaching for example, only 36% of secondary heads are female even though two thirds of the workforce is female.

Career interruptions due to family responsibility and the related lack of confidence contribute to women dropping off the leadership pipeline. Public perception changes once a woman has had a baby: more than four in 10 people believe she is less committed to her work after having had children. Together with structural factors such as limited flexible working and uninformed line managers, this can be enough to make women drop off the leadership pipeline.

I had my baby in April 2016, and having a background in leadership development, I have become passionate about the issue of leaders with families staying on the leadership trajectory. A few weeks after birth, I attended my first RSA event on Gender Equality by Design. This inspired me to set up an event for new parents with their babies to discuss how to combine a leadership career with looking after a small child.  

So, with a bit of persistence and a bit of luck, I managed to set up the #leaderswithbabies event in the House of Commons, chaired by Tulip Siddiq MP and hosted by Heidi Alexander MP. New parents clearly are desperate to talk about this topic. Even though the event was a word of mouth pilot, it was oversubscribed with 60 parents and 50 babies attending and more than 40 people on the waiting list. There is clearly a lot of interest in this topic. Three of the key takeaway points included:

First, from Karen Blackett OBE, Chairwoman and former CEO of Mediacom: “Don’t apologise for being a parent. Celebrate everything it brings you including skills and experiences”. All too often women (and men) feel the pressure to pretend they don’t have kids at work. Karen outlined beautifully how she involves her seven-year-old son in business discussions, which helps her to be more creative and helps him to feel valued and involved. Every single panellists highlighted how being a leader makes her a better. This suggests that organisations can make subtle changes that allow employees and leaders to celebrate their families.

Second, Laura Harrison, Director of People and Strategy at CIPD argued for the need to give space to men to be #leaderswithbabies. True gender equality at the leadership level requires more men to be role models and to lean into looking after their babies. This means more part time leadership roles for men and less judgement for men who want to take time out to look after children. Organisations can celebrate case studies of men on shared parental leave and celebrate their contributions, as well ensure that maternity and shared parental leave policies are the same – all too often maternity leave policies are a lot more generous than shared parental leave policies, effectively forcing women to take time off to look after children.

Finally, Nishma Robb, Ads Marketing Director at Google urged parents to: “Continue to stay involved in work: high childcare costs are an investment into your future”. Nishma highlighted the importance of staying in the loop at the workplace, and how sometimes it can be worth spending the money on childcare; even though for a few years you don’t make much money, but it will be an investment in your future.Organisations need to lobby government for cheaper childcare options.

To have more women in leadership roles, we need to make it a new normal for parents to be able to combine looking after children with a leadership career. To achieve that, we need alternative ways of working, invest in growing inspirational role models who show what is possible and in turn influence their organisations and wider society. We also need to create a strong alliance of high profile individuals who have been influential as employers and commit to making a difference for parents at work, not just pay lip service.


Verena is a Local Area Director at Teach First where she runs leadership development programmes. She is Chair of Trustees at Lewisham Citizens Advice and volunteers as Nightstop Host for homeless young people. 

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  • A very interesting piece though isn't it madness that we're having this conversation at all. Many women are in high profile senior roles in society and business eg Chief Medical Officer (England), Head of Offcom, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, Prime Minister, there is obviously a gap - an aspiration gap- that holds back many girls. I don't think that this gap is accentuated by the prospect of having children. The role of parents is, in my view, the rate determinant. Certainly the support (or lack of) of the employer when female staff have children is undoubtedly a factor in them having the opportunity to reach senior levels in some organisations. The best people in an organisation should be encouraged be they male or female. This is, after all, 2017.

  • Great post Verena and well done on organising such a high profile event with great speakers!  I conducted a large piece of research last year on how organisational culture influences fathers to work flexibly.  My business, Avenir Consulting, is focused on creating gender balance in organisations.  Happy to chat and share my findings - do get in touch.

  • Thanks Verena for sharing your blog on this important issue, and fantastic to hear about 

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