Gender stereotypes have existed for centuries: women were expected to keep the family and home in order whilst men were the breadwinners. Thankfully, seismic shifts in society have taken place and more women are in high-flying corporate jobs than ever before and many others have established their own businesses.
But we’re not quite there yet. In February 2011, Lord Davies passed a recommendation that all FTSE 100 boards should have a minimum of 25% female representation. Four years on, the number of women on FTSE 100 boards has risen from 12.5% to 20.7% and whilst this a sign things are moving in the right direction, many feel that it is not enough. For a start, we need more role models: research from an O2 study showed that 45% of women in the UK do not believe that women occupy enough senior positions in organisations. What’s more, there are certain industries that continue to be largely dominated by men with only a small minority of female role models. Is there any sign of change on the horizon that will make it easier for women to pursue careers in these areas? What is it that is holding women back from success in stereotypically male roles?
Rashmi Dubé, director of Legatus Law, is a woman who has never let her gender hinder her achievements in a traditionally male-dominated industry. With 20 years of experience as a solicitor specialising in business and commercial law, she launched her own law firm in 2013. She recognises that certain sectors of law are predominately male dominated and points out that “even clients, all of whom run their own businesses, are mainly men.” She believes that confidence is key to success in any industry, male or female, and has often found that being the only female in a meeting or networking event was advantageous as her gender made her stand out. “They’ve only got one woman to remember – it’s much harder for me to remember all of them,” jokes Dubé.
Dubé refused to let her gender play a part in her success. “[No matter] how you look at things, we are all people. And if you take away the gender element, then it’s just a person that you are speaking to.” Dubé believes that the industry is changing because women are breaking through the social boundaries. “We are ignoring the wall and actually just walking through it but it does take confidence and it’s not that easy.”
Call for change
There have been calls for a reform around STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) after it was revealed levels of female participation remain worryingly low – it was described as a “matter of national embarrassment,” by Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. Compared with our EU counterparts, Britain has the lowest number of engineers; only 14% of engineering graduates and just 4% of registered engineers are women. STEM workers are vital to the world’s innovation and Miliband’s pledge will see Labour working with schools to encourage young people to study STEM subjects and pursue careers in the industry.
Fujia Chen is the only female among all the co-founders and investors of Oxford Space Structures, the winner of the Sirius Programme, which saw 60 teams of graduate entrepreneurs set up their businesses in the UK. Upon receiving her PhD from Oxford University, she began her career as a materials engineer with Williams F1. She was the only female amongst over 600 male engineers during her two years there. She admits that at times she did feel isolated due to her gender. “It was sometimes a bit difficult when all my colleagues went on someone’s stag-do, it did make me feel a bit left out.” However, she was never subject to gender discrimination and, like Dubé, felt that her gender was an asset to her career in a predominately male industry.
“People seem to find it easier to remember me, compared to the less noticeable masses of men with a similar status as me,” says Chen. The number of women studying engineering and science is on the rise and Chen feels that STEM industries need more women. “It means companies can use a lot more talents [and,] more importantly, there will be more innovative products being developed specially for women.”
Picture a builder or a roofer; imagine them with their hard hats and steel toe-capped boots. Did you imagine a man or a woman? Women currently represent just 11% of the construction industry in the UK and only 2% of these women are on site working in manual labour jobs.
Marta de Sousa, founder of Lux Reality, is a property developer working in construction. She is no stranger to building sites and her DIY dexterity makes her a dab hand with power tools. However, she is one of the very few women in the construction industry leading an international property development company and working alongside her team on site. “It is a very male-dominated world in all areas of the business from suppliers, to builders and engineers. I’m always the only woman on site and I rarely come across women trades people,” says de Sousa. She believes that gender plays a big role in how people are perceived and treated. Gaining respect and being recognised for one’s abilities as opposed to gender often takes time and de Sousa has been subject to catcalls as well as several attempts by tradesmen and suppliers to undermine her expertise and overcharge her. “What is frustrating is the feeling that I have to go the extra mile more than a man every time to prove that I know what I am talking about. The way I combat this gender stereotyping is by asserting myself on site and demonstrating my knowledge to anyone I employ,” she adds. Her struggles to gain respect from male counterparts despite her profound knowledge, show that perceptions of women in stereotypically male industries need to change. Women have landed jobs because they are capable, not to fill quotas.
According to Kate Lester, founder of Diamond Logistics, the logistics industry is finally changing for women. She proved herself in a highly male-dominated industry and has helped to shift the gender dynamic by creating one of the biggest logistics franchises in the UK. She started her career in logistics when she was 20 and was the only girl in a very male office and admits that it’s always been quite rough and tumble. The logistics industry attracts males as many of the proprietors and drivers are male and Lester has been subject to sexism in the past. “I’ve had my arse slapped in the office before; obviously that particular sub-contractor didn’t stay with us for very long. You repeatedly get people saying, ‘can I speak to the governor?’ and I say: ‘well, you are’.” However, those days are behind Lester – the industry is changing, she says. Half of her team at Diamond are female and Lester runs a very balanced office. She has also always demanded that everybody treats each other with the respect they deserve. “I’ve always found my sex to be a very positive attribute because I genuinely believe that I run my business and my office very differently, it’s a very collaborative way or working and it’s very team driven.” Lester’s own business ethos could be adopted by other industries to encourage more women into roles.
Industries are fundamentally changing for women. These women have proven that gender was no obstacle in them achieving success. Dubé, Chen and Lester all agree that being a female in predominately male workplaces made them stand out. Lester elaborates: “It’s a positive attribute because if anything it makes you slightly different; we are all trying to differentiate ourselves in this marketplace and if our gender does assist, then that’s beneficial.”
Whilst Davies’ board target will help to encourage more women to pursue senior positions, different approaches are required for each industry to promote women on talent rather than a number agenda. Schools need to do more to educate girls they can excel in STEM subjects and that they can pursue any career that they want to. Businesses need to address the needs of women avoiding male dominated industries and cater their recruitment approaches accordingly.