Women At The Top? – Not in Corporates

Last night BBC 2 provided us with some gripping television which is a major feat considering the Paralympics are grabbing the viewing audience.

Hilary Devey, a British multimillionaire entrepreneur, presented a programme called “Women At The Top.” Designed to discover why there are so few senior women in UK corporates. And a severe lack of women at the top.

It was a great programme but it reminded me of the superficial presentations we all get a company induction day, that day when, after we start at a new company, all new recruits sit through hours of powerpoint presentations in a stuffy room having one manager after another show vision statements,  organisation charts and strategy slides in an effort to educate us about the business. And we learn about the business but we are never told the real nitty gritty of how the organisation really works, and how you need to behave to fit in and be a success.

Women At The Top was a little like that. It did a great job in raising the issues and informing us of the reality of the inequity between the genders as the seniority of the positions changes. It gave brilliant examples of how women and men operate differently in groups and at the workplace. It showed how Proctor and Gamble examined the productivity of its project teams based on gender, and found that those with an equal balance performed 5% more effectively. And when your profit is close to $9 billion, a percentage point can make a massive difference to the dividend return.

So why do I think it could have gone deeper? I wanted them to go past childcare, flexible working and women not applying for bigger, more challenging roles because of the language used and examine the culture of the corporation. Research I conducted earlier this year of 300 women business owners about why they left corporate to set up their own business, showed that the main reason women left was due to the toxic culture.

They were tired of the politics, opaque decision making, poor leadership, and ultimately they felt that their values clashed with that of the organisation. So they start to think about leaving, an idea for a business emerges and then they leave.

They leave to create a working life that they control. They relish the freedom and flexibility that being their own boss gives them. They are on top.

Even though 68% of them are earning less than in their previous job, two thirds of them would not return to paid employment. Once they leave, they’ve gone for ever.

I would love Women At The Top to uncover more about the Toxic Culture and how women refuse to tolerate it. And why do women make the choice to leave, and men make the choice to stay. My hypothesis on this is that men will put up with anything to get that golden prize (pay rise, title, salary, bonus etc) but women won’t. Their apolitical values  push them to think of leaving and then one day they say “I am worth more than this – I’m off”.

I would love to know your thoughts.

The summary of the research mentioned in the blog can be downloaded here.




  • Gill Buchanan

    Couldn’t agree more! I left a very toxic culture where women did all the work and men got all the glory!
    The best thing about working for your self is the freedom you have to live the life you want. Money isn’t everything; having a life of fulfilment and living your own values is priceless.

    • wendykerr

      Gill, Thanks for your comment – it sums up the sentiment felt by so many women who left to start up their own business. I hope yours is thriving! I love the name……

  • http://www.jessicachivers.com Jessica Chivers

    Nailed well and truly hammered in there Wendy. Insightful piece, thank you. Opting out to do things differently is a reason I hear a lot although let’s not decry the contribution the programme may have made to some organisations beginning to think about how their policies need to change. There’s so much more to do on the flexible working front. So much more to do on re-writing existing rules/policies/practises that are very much out-dated. I’m left wondering about what we’d do if we had to build business life from scratch with an equal number of men and women sitting together planning it. I think we’d have something very different to what we have now. My own reflections on Hilary’s programme are here: http://jessicachivers.com/2012/09/07/women-at-the-top/

  • http://www.mumandcareer.co.uk Inge

    Wendy, I loved the programme. It’s just not aimed at people like us, how know the issues inside out. They summarised the basics very well, I thought, and in a compelling way. First you need to get awareness that there is an issue and a solution. Once there are more women at the top (and throughout the organisation) I believe culture will change.

    Totally agree with your last point. Men tolerate the culture because it gives them more rewards (status, money, and.. beautiful women). Women are differently motivated, and what motivates them is not what you get in business. Perhaps they are also less bothered about the ‘toxic culture’ as some of that is typical ‘male behaviour’ and they get used to it from a young age. Men flourish in hierarchy, whereas women flourish in a more cooperative environment.

    By no means want to offend men who don’t fit this picture, or women who don’t. As of course many of those do exist and I am aware of that. I am talking ‘most men’, ‘men, on average’ of course.

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