To mark International Women's Day on March 8, human resources guru Julia Cater takes a look at the number of women in the boardroom 

Data was published last year in a report by the government-backed FTSE Women Leaders Review highlighting a major sea-change with women’s board representation reaching nearly 40 per cent across the FTSE 100, 250 and 350 compared with 12.5 per cent 10 years ago. 

This is a really good sign of a shift in attitude and culture. But there is still more work to be done at the management and executive level, where only one in three leadership roles, and around 25 per cent of all executive committee roles are held by women, and there are proportionally few women as CEOs. Equally, there are still many companies yet to hit the former 33 per cent Board target set by the Hampton Alexander Review. Despite the good news story at Board level, women are not breaking into leadership positions commensurate with their presence in the talent pool.   

What is still holding women back from top management levels? The reasons why the C-suite pipeline is so narrow for women are complex. Women are more likely to take career breaks or work-life balance adjustments (part-time working) than men which, however wrong, is inevitably damaging for career acceleration. In addition, unconscious bias about current performance vs potential remains a significant difficulty for women hoping for a promotion. A study shows that women are consistently judged to have less leadership potential than their male counterparts, making them 14 per cent less likely to be promoted. Defining potential is tricky enough in itself, but measuring it is more subjective than measuring current performance, opening the door for bias.   

Another crucial aspect in the story is that women are also less likely to apply for a more senior role in the first place, even within their own company. So is the question of what is holding women back from top management levels more about whether women are holding themselves back? There are large numbers of studies that show that women are less self-assured than men, consider themselves less promotion-worthy, predict they'll do worse on tests, and generally underestimate their abilities. 

Areen Shahbari from Harvard’s Professional Development Programs attributes the reticence to evolutionary and cultural reasons. “In most cultures and countries, women are still the main care givers of their families. Women have been taking care of household chores, raising kids, and caring for the elderly in the family for centuries without getting compensated for the work they do. Out of this conception of woman as care giver grows an expectation that women should take on anything that you ask them to do, and do it happily, with a smile, without asking for anything in return, while showing gratitude and no complaint,” she says. Women will be holding unconscious beliefs about their own career advancement potential, will be much harder on themselves than men, and won’t answer a question unless they are 100 per cent certain of the answer, for example.   

Suki Sandhu, a UK-based diversity specialist and CEO of diversity and inclusion consultancies Audeliss and INvolve agrees: “Ingrained societal attitudes have led to women being more tentative when applying for roles. They are more likely to be self-deprecating and cite where they don’t have skills, instead of highlighting where they do. They also tend to worry more about being asked to present proof of their abilities, whilst their male counterparts are more confident in this.”  

Women need to unlearn a lot of the fundamental beliefs about their abilities and a big part of that is confidence. The good thing is that “confidence” is not a fixed state and can be developed and nurtured:  

  1. Seek out high profile projects, put up your hand, and accept opportunities when they are offered. 
  1. Talk about the impact you make at work, and use “I” statements not “We”. 
  2. Establish a broad network and enlist help from allies, advocates and mentors. 
  3. Act like you belong by avoiding unnecessary apologising and meekness, thinking about your body posture and being careful where you sit in meetings. 
  4. Reflect on self-limiting beliefs which make you worry and “people please”, and make you chase perfection.  
  5. Recognise the inner critic and challenge the self-limiting assumptions with fact and evidence. 

However, the idea that women don’t put themselves forward for promotions or talk about their potential enough, unfairly shifts the onus onto women to solve the problem. It is important for organisations to debias their systems, rather than relying on people to debias themselves: 

  1. As an organisation, change what good authentic leadership looks like, rejecting self-promoting behaviours in favor of a mission-oriented, communal style leadership including honesty, fairness, compassion and willingness to compromise. 
  2. Ensure an objective process for all promotions and Board appointments supported by independent facilitation and verification. 
  3. Use 360/peer scoring for talent identification or promotion assessments. 
  4. Support positive action initiatives such as female mentoring and promoting women in STEM careers.  
  1. Provide unconscious bias training for hiring managers. 
  2. Implement anonymised applicant CVs. 
  3. Redress 24/7 working culture, rewarding outcomes-based targets instead. 
  4. Embrace 40 per cent female Board and leadership team quotas. 
  5. Track data on women being promoted and leaving the organisation, and understand the reason for any negative trends. 


To mark International Women’s Day, there are several events being held in the county. Here are just a couple of them…

Join Cumbria Chamber of Commerce to celebrate International Women’s Day with a series of thought provoking and informative sessions, two course lunch, inspirational speakers, and networking. The discounted price for Chamber members is £55+VAT, or £75+VAT for non-members. The event is being held at the North Lakes Hotel & Spa, Penrith, on Wednesday, March 8 from 9am to 4.30pm.

H&H Group is hosting a lunch celebrating the success of business women in Cumbria. The event is taking place on Tuesday, March 14 at the Fleece at Ruleholme and will include speakers, Diane Hannah,  the co-founder and Director of The Herdy Company and Gill Haigh, Managing Director at Cumbria Tourism. This is a free event.To book a place email