The past is not a foreign country

Women have been part of the commercial workforce in Britain for nearly 200 years. So why do we still have so few women in CEO roles in FT-SE 100 companies? Understanding more about the history of women at work, where they were able to have impact, where they were not and how they were treated provides insight into issues that are still real today. These are some of my conclusions so far and while the focus in this project is on the representation of women in business, I think these four themes are equally valid for the many other groups under-represented in executive teams.

1.    Stereotypes are sticky 
There was uproar recently at the treatment meted out to Amanda Blanc at the Aviva AGM but successful business women have always suffered from negative press and derogatory comments. In the 1920s they were characterised as ‘deficient in the social graces, unattractive and hard as nails’ or ‘elderly, soullessly efficient, vinegary, and wearing a high blouse with a collar tie.’ Reporters who turned up to interview them invariably commented on their appearance and took pains to confirm that they were ‘pleasant’.

Organisational biases today might (sometimes!) be better hidden but they are wide-ranging and run deep.  It might be less common now for them to appear so explicitly, which is why this recent incident has received so much attention, but they are still there, influencing attitudes and assessment frameworks, policies and pay.  Limiting their effects requires a comprehensive plan of action and both qualitative and quantitative measures of success.

2.    Money talks
What do the women I have found have in common? They generally had parents who supported their education.  They tended to live in London, physically close to the offices of publications run by wealthy women, suffrage organisations and progressive publishers. They were involved in organisations that kept, catalogued and in some cases digitised their records, journals and staff magazines. In other words, it is possible for me to find their stories because of the investment decisions made by others – their families, individuals and organisations with which they interacted.

It is the same today. Decisions on everything from how to spend the learning & development budgets, which hospitality activities to support and how much to invest in technology to enable home-working can all play a part in who ultimately gets the big jobs. If we want a business world where a wider range of women hold more sway it means making different financial choices.  It’s not just about pay and parental policies.

3.    Purpose matters
In industries like retail and advertising where women had real clout between the wars, many businesses were family-owned or founder-led. The men at their helm were in it for the long term: employing, promoting and retaining women made good business sense. They weren’t forced into it by investor pressure or government targets.

Now, when the average tenure of Chairs and CEOs in the largest companies is around six years, it is organisational purpose that matters if gender equality is to stay high on the agenda regardless of how fashionable it is or who is sitting around the table.  

4. Consequences count
One of the stories I have found that I particularly liked involves Alice Head and her boss and champion, William Randolph Hearst. A weekend guest, on arriving at St Donat’s, made the mistake of assuming Alice was a secretary or housekeeper within earshot of Hearst, asking her to look up the return train times for him.  ‘Your train goes at 4pm today,’ Hearst told him. But this is a rarity – too often, the autobiographies of women working in the first part of the 20th century contain stories all too familiar to women working today, of harassment and discrimination where there was no recourse.

They would be depressed to know that even now, years after the Equality Act of 2010, surveys and polls still repeatedly find high percentages of women reporting experiences of sexual harassment at work. Many women are reluctant to report it because they fear the fall out and expect no action to be taken. Organisations need to do a better job of showing they are serious about ‘safe working environments’ and ‘zero tolerance’ policies.


The image shown is ‘Sulking’ by Edward Degas, c.1870, oil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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