I remember learning about the suffragettes when I was about 10. As the youngest of three girls, doing well at school and a Dad who thought we were as good as any boys, I was shocked to realise that my grandmothers had been part of that generation of women who voted for the first time in 1928 and that people had actually lost their lives for our right to be involved in democracy. The boys I knew at school could hardly wipe their own noses. From the self-assured world view of a high flying 10-year-old who thought boys a nuisance to be tolerated, the thought of them having sole political control was deeply shocking.
Yet in spite of the pioneering work of women, who in small and large ways opened doors for us to pour through, the old inequalities are still with us. As Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook says in her inspiring book Lean in: Women, Work and Will to Lead (2015), “The blunt truth is that men still run the world. This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect us all, women’s voices are not heard equally.”
She goes on to list the statistics, “Of the 195 independent countries in the world, only 17 are led by women. Women hold just 22 percent of seats in parliaments globally…In the UK 23.5 percent of seats in Parliament are held by women. In the European Parliament, 35 percent of the seats are held by women. None of these figures are close to 50 percent.”
And there is more: in the UK, women hold only 21 percent of senior executive positions and with only 23.5 percent of board seats among the FTSE 100 companies held by women, we’re ranked 6th in Europe. As of 2015, there are only five women CEO’s among the FTSE 100 companies and nine women CEO’s among the FTSE 250 companies.
The pay differential between men and women full time workers in November 2015 was running at 14.2%. Thankfully that is better than in the EU as a whole, where according to the European Commission it stands at 41.5%. However, should we be thankful that according to the Fawcett Society, for every £1 earned by a man in the UK working part- or full-time, a woman earns a shameful 81p? I could go on.
Coaching over the past eighteen years, I’ve learnt a lot about where we women limit ourselves. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it so perfectly, in a way that makes me wince, because it’s an uncomfortable message to hear “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.
Anyone who has projected their worst anxieties and worries onto the future has had the ‘fear gremlin’ grip them at one time or another. It kicks in when we need to take a risk, from speaking up in a meeting; dealing with an under-performer; making a request of the boss; or going for that promotion. The list goes on. It keeps us inside our comfort zone and stops us stepping up to the leadership table.
Its close sibling is the ‘wanting-to-be-liked gremlin’. Instilled from an early age – be good, be nice – we mistakenly go for popularity over respect. Holding our pads on our knees, we eagerly sit forward to listen and take notes in meetings, forgetting to put forward our point of view, letting others interrupt and ending up with a long “things to do” list instead of respect and credibility. We get stuck being the head girl instead of the head mistress.
And then then there’s the ‘inner gremlin’ that sabotages our ability to have powerful conversations: either avoiding them altogether, so that we tolerate situations that are holding us back or let our anger and frustrations leak inappropriately. Of all the things I work with women leaders on, finding their voice is the most powerful and exhilarating because having powerful conversations that make a difference, changes the world.
In our business world women are held back by thoughtless assumptions about what women are capable of and structures that still don’t deliver equality. Behind us lies a whole cultural history which we are still shrugging off. We have to address this, individually and collectively if we want to open the doors for the women who come next. My own three daughters are now flying the nest, millennials eager to make their mark and I want those doors flung open on their behalf.
Yet, we also have to take responsibility for ourselves and confront those inner gremlins. For each of us, that will be an intensely personal journey which requires us to give ourselves a kick up the backside combined with deep inner compassion for our very human frailties and needs as we confront fear, the desire to be liked and the protective pull that leads us to sabotage our ability to have powerful conversations.