The HR Juggler

Archive for the ‘Gender’ Category


The CIPD’s HRD conference seems a long time ago already. However, there is much on the session I attended on Senior Female Leadership Talent that I have not yet written about and much of the content has continued to percolate around my brain long after the conference finished and initial blogs were shared. The topic matter isn’t easy, but that’s never a good reason in itself not to share the content and reflect further on it…far from it!

Catherine Sandler of Sandler Consulting was the second speaker of this session and she shared her research, experience and insight on the topic of senior female executives, which was fascinating and could easily have filled a session in its own right…if not several. I hope to do it…and her…justice, in the overview I have pulled together below.

Catherine posed the question of what motivates women and asserted that any discussion around enabling more women to perform at senior executive levels has to delve into this. Whilst motivation is of course individual, the most common themes for women are working on something that they care about, feeling valued and feeling that they can make a difference.  This is markedly different from the answers that men typically give to the same question.

Catherine described a flip-side to what women at their best can deliver, which is that relatively few women are comfortable with leadership and the concept of power. Women often want to be liked and therefore may feel that there is a trade-off that they have to make to become successful, which can set up an inner conflict and potential for guilt or insecurity.  Harmony tends to be important to women and there can be a real fear of how they are perceived by others, particularly if they believe they are seen as arrogant, bossy or selfish.

As a consequence to this, women can have a tendency to avoid conflict, which at a senior level manifests itself with how they interact with their peers, their ability to hold team members to account, and the way in which they interface with their boss. Catherine’s findings indicated that women find it hard to be assertive in these situations, which is reflected in the use of language.  Women are apparently four times more likely than men to start a boardroom contribution with an apology (e.g. “I’m sorry if this has already been covered”) or a modifier (e.g. “it may be that I have misunderstood what you are saying, but…”). I found the issue of language as it relates to women in the workplace a fascinating one and I have already found myself paying greater attention to it, both for myself and those around me.

From language, we moved onto the issue of delegation, why it is often so difficult to do effectively, yet is crucial for career progression and can be seen as real limitation if an individual is not perceived to be good at it. Men and women both expressed a fear failure in their reluctance to delegate; however after this, the reasons for not delegating became markedly different by gender. For women, the other reasons they resisted delegating tended to be a sense of perfectionism, an excessive sense of high personal standards and a wish to protect their team. For men, it was typically because they felt they could do the task much better and faster than anyone in their team below them and often also a wish to retain control.

Linked to this issue of delegation, Catherine also asserted that in her experience, women tend not to be as good at managing their own careers and that one of the key elements of doing this is for the female leader to hold their existing team to account, which in turn creates more time for an individual to focus on their own self and aspirations and how to fulfil them. Apparently this applies to surprisingly senior women and she painted a powerful picture of some of the limitations that women can inadvertently place on themselves and their progression.

Catherine shared some interesting insights in terms of work that she had done with women through coaching and impact programmes to provide support and help them to overcome some of their inherent disadvantages in the senior management teams they work in. As an exercise around leadership brand, she asked each woman to identify three qualities that set them apart as a leader. What was interesting was that words such as supportive, compassionate and kind are frequently used in the early stages of this exercise: all of which are undoubtedly true for the individuals as personality traits and personal values, but as leaders the individuals are much more than this.  Catherine described her role as help each woman to turn their leadership brand into something that inspires both them and others around them and remarked that almost always the senior women she works with are far better than they think they are.  In many ways it is a mental and psychological journey for each woman, to own a description that does them justice. This has a huge confidence building impact and Catherine was passionate about the fact that this should be done at the most junior levels of any organisation.

Another exercise that Catherine described was asking the women to bring along a situation that they find difficult and provide an opportunity to role play and practice in a safe environment. The issue of language is key and she helps women to develop assertive techniques in the words and phrases that they use and to ensure that their own objectives and the core message are well prepared and clearly defined. Follow-up sessions after a three-month period and support from peers are helpful in identifying, using and developing their assertive voice. Self-insight is very important in order to shift some of the inherent gender disadvantages to a more positive stance.

This brought Catherine’s part of the session to an end and there followed a lot of interesting questions and engaged debate. I think it’s important to note that there was no suggestion that the above applies to all women and clearly generalisations have to be treated with caution. What was fascinating to me though, was that the content of the session was not merely about flexible working, equal pay and childcare, but that it moved beyond into some really thought-provoking ideas about how talent and diversity can be nurtured within organisations paying attention to some of the less obvious issues around language, motivation, delegation and core values. That can only be a good thing.

Before I attended this session, I was definitely not in favour of women only groups and leadership and impact training targeted specifically to certain genders. I’m not sure I have been completely won over, but I am certainly more open-minded now that there can be some benefits. I do have a remaining niggle though that we shouldn’t get too caught up with gender per se, but that we should ensure that the relevant development is available to all who need it, and that the prevailing culture of an organisation will make a huge difference to the ability of women to progress within it.

I’d love to know what you think!


One of the most thought-provoking sessions I attended at the CIPD’s HRD Conference was entitled Senior Female Leadership Talent: how should female talent be developed for executive roles? It is no coincidence that it has taken me a significant length of time to write about it: there was plenty of food for thought and much to reflect on, both during and after the panel discussion. I had some reservations in advance about attending this particular session – part of me is inherently uncomfortable with intense discussions about any particular group in the workforce in isolation – yet I was glad that I did, as it was informative, engaging and interesting.

The audience was predominantly female and the pragmatic, engaging tone was quickly set by Dianah Worman, the CIPD’s Public Policy Adviser for Diversity, stating that it was “deeply depressing to still being having the conversation about why we don’t have more women in exec roles” and posing a number of questions, such as whether women deselect themselves from senior roles, whether the potential threat of boardroom quotas from Europe would do more harm than good and the need to retain the senior women in leadership roles, as well as simply achieving the numbers.

The point was also made early that there are, of course, no easy answers and that much of the content within the session could be applied to diversity in general: the need for fresh thinking, valuable insights and different perspectives within organisations and for businesses to reflect the diversity of their customer groups at every level of the company.  The starting point for conversations about diversity has to be the business imperative and benefit.

Fiona Cannon, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion from Lloyds Banking Group, shared some of their recent experience, and some of the background that led them to making some interventions aimed at increasing the number of senior execs within the organisation. Fiona described how, although 64% of staff were female, this was unevenly spread throughout the business and that at the point they decided to take action, women comprised 80% of clerical roles, 45% of junior management roles and just 17% of senior management roles. It was key for them as a business to have women in key decision-making roles, which had an impact of the customer base.

Lloyds Banking Group realised that they needed to do more to understand the specific issues at play and through a feedback process including focus groups and one-to-one interviews they identified a number of common factors: firstly lack of flexible working opportunities and a “19th century model of work” (for example working 9am-5pm, between the ages of 18 and 60) and a lack of role models of successful, senior women in the organisation. Their assessment of the most senior women within the company also showed that there were very few with real P&L experience and that most had become senior by virtue of being functional experts. When they looked closely elsewhere in the organisation, this was also reflected in more junior roles and they identified this as being an issue. Another common factor was the issue of the confidence of the women themselves that they were capable of doing exec roles to the required standard and cultural issues that had resulted from the command and control style from the top management during the merger period. Fiona made a great point that even if organisations have very good diversity at all levels of management, it is crucial not to become complacent, as it can potentially change very quickly, if other events affect the culture.

Fiona described the importance of undertaking long-term interventions rather than short-term initiatives and that the first action Lloyds Banking Group took was to address the behaviours that had become prevalent during the merger by introducing a personal code of behaviour and expectations and ensuring that these are built into the leadership programme and in every layer of management, with a view to these permeating the culture. This was described as very much an ongoing work in progress.

Lloyds Banking Group also set up an impact development programme for senior women, which included executive coaching and a sponsor (male or female) at the most senior level of the business. Fiona admitted that she had been cynical as to whether this programme would work, but stated that it had had phenomenal impact within the organisation, partly because it helped to build networks for women internally, which become a source of ongoing professional support for the women involved and also because it helped them to feel valued in the organisation. She reported that all of the women who have gone through this programme are keen to support and mentor other women in the organisation and that it has had a powerful ripple effect. The programme was initially focussed on the 40 most senior women and has now been extended to the top 100.

Fiona also related how they had targeted the layer of junior management, which often formed the ceiling for women at Lloyds Banking Group, beyond which many did not seem to progress. They developed a long-term intervention to develop junior management roles by assessing 40 or 50 women with high potential at this level and building a programme round them, to provide support and encourage them into business roles. They focussed a lot of their efforts on identifying role models for women one level up from where they were currently work, as well as role models who are working differently..the idea that she eloquently described of footprints in the snow. Recognising that not everyone necessarily wants to do the top job in an organisation, instead tapping into and developing the aspiration to get to progress to the next level up, paving the way for them to follow literally one footprint at a time.

All of this was really only about half of the content of the session (!) and rather than try to squeeze the remainder into one very long blog post, I am going to deal with the content delivered by the second speaker, Catherine Sandler of Sandler Consulting, in a separate post.

So….more to come from me on this…but I’d love to know what you think about what I’ve shared from the session so far.


Today’s post was going to be all about the Unconference.  And there definitely will be a post about that soon, once I have reflected a little more on it.

Today though, something else happened which really made me think.

I am very lucky in that I don’t feel guilty about being a working mum. I don’t judge anyone for their working arrangements, as life is more than tough enough already balancing home, work, life and children. It struck me today though how precarious the guilt-free state is and how it can quite easily be wobbled by very minor things.

Until my children went to school, I worked three days a week.  Once they had completed their first term and my role at work increased, I started doing four days during term-time, in effect when they are at school.  From a purely selfish point of view it would be easier for me to have four full days at work and one day completely off, but I like the fact that my extra hours don’t really affect my children and that they don’t notice I am now working more. They would most certainly mind if I started doing four full days, so the current arrangement works well and enables me to balance both, albeit that I have to do a quick switch from one ‘mode’ to the other when I dash out to pick them up at home time.

Two things have come up today that have shaken my belief in my convenient working pattern and my guilt-free balancing act. Firstly the fact that due to the various bank holidays, I dropped my children off this morning for the first time in over a week and because of the Easter holidays, its only the second time in about a month. Many of the mums who don’t work were delighted to see me, but also made it clear that we hadn’t seen each other  for ages, because I hadn’t been around. Ouch – that was a pang of guilt you just heard, however illogical I know it to be.

The second thing that is testing my lack of working mums’ guilt is a school trip that has come up: one of my daughters is going on Monday next week, the other on Friday and they are after quite a lot of parent helpers. I have previously helped (pre-Christmas) in my Friday daughter’s class, so if I went with either of them, it ought to be on the Monday.  But I am working then, so I have said as it currently stands that I can’t help.  And I feel bad.

None of this matters much at the end of the day. I’ll assuage the temporary pang of guilt by asking at the end of today whether the Monday trip has sufficient parent helpers: if they don’t then I’ll take the day off and do my bit. But it has reminded me that all working mums and perhaps all working parents who have the main duty of childcare are very prone to an attack of working parent guilt, usually when we least expect it. 

Flexible working, balancing home, work, life and kids is not easy. I’d love to hear about your experiences and how and whether you keep those pangs of guilt at bay, or if you just learn to live with them ;).

A couple of days ago I was asked to provide comment on the gender divide in HR. My immediate reaction was that I really don’t have very strong feelings on the subject at all.

Sure, I recognise that HR is a profession dominated by women (up to 70% apparently) and that there seem to be more men at a senior level than a junior level…but it doesn’t keep me awake at night. I don’t personally believe that the CIPD need to go on a major recruitment drive to get more men into the profession, evaluate how easy it is for women to progress within it or analyse why more women are attracted to it than men. To me, I don’t feel it matters hugely; it is what it is.

This undoubtedly reflects my personal experience of working in HR; certainly I have consistently had fewer male colleagues than female HR colleagues. But I have also found in the companies that I have worked for that there is a fairly even split at the senior HR Director or Head of HR level and that gender is not an issue, either in perception or reality. Throughout my career (and specifically when I had an HR boss rather than a CEO-boss) I have almost always had high-flying, high-achieving, immensely senior female HR bosses, who have been great role models.

As to why more women than men work in HR, I can only venture that it is perhaps to do with a perception of HR being soft and empathetic (traditionally seen as female qualities), rather data-driven and analytical (traditionally seen as ‘hard’, male strengths). Of course, HR is and should be both, though I sometimes suspect we don’t embrace that as much as we could or should. And I know I for one, initially chose HR as a career “because I wanted to help people…..” 😉 It does of course happen sometimes that I’m able to do that, but not usually in the way I originally envisaged.

What I would really like to know though is this: am I just lucky in my experience? Are gender issues within HR a real, live-and-kicking debate and a source of frustration for you in your organisation? Does it differ by sector? Am I missing something in all of this?

I would love to hear your views!

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