British Women Aren’t In Positions Of Power, But We Can’t Just Blame The Glass Ceiling

A new report out of Britain finds that all is not peaches and crumpets for women in the upper echelons of the English workforce. The Sex & Power 2011 survey from the Equality and Human Rights Commission counted the number of women in positions of influence and power in 27 spheres, including media and government. The commission found that women are still drastically underrepresented among “Britain’s 26,000 top positions of power.” If women were to achieve equal representation among the positions they looked at, the authors write, “5,400 ‘missing’ women would rise through the ranks to positions of real influence.” What’s less clear is who’s to blame.

First of all, how do the grim British stats compare to America’s? The new report finds that women make up 22.2% of Parliament; according to the Center for American Women and Politics, 16.8% of Congress is female. Women lead 12.5% of FTSE 100 companies (the list of top UK businesses traded on the London stock exchange); in the US, just seven of the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500 are headed by women. In other words, the UK is doing dismally — and we’re behind them.

As in the US, women in the UK graduate from college at high rates and do better in school than men. Even in their early careers, they do just fine. But something happens on the way to executive-level management.

So why are women still so underrepresented in the highest positions in the UK? Is it insufficient labor laws? The UK enacted its latest anti-discrimination laws just law year. Mothers are entitled to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave there, compared to 12 weeks unpaid in the US. And the gender pay gap in the UK is significantly less than it is in the US.

Heather McGregor of the 30% Club, a nonprofit that works to bring more women onto corporate boards in the UK, tells the Guardian that the old scapegoats are not to blame. “It’s not a glass ceiling stopping women from getting to the top, but the fact that they are less likely to build networks, focus on their career priorities, and spend a substantial proportion of their time on their own PR,” she said. “How will you ever be picked for a good job if no one knows about you?”

The 30% club is a start for this problem. Founded by Helena Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management, in 2010 she created the club to help increase female board participation at major companies to 30% by 2015, without the use of quotas. Morrissey is fervently against quotas which force companies to put a required number of women on their boards. “They undermine women with the sense that you can’t get there on merit,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg Markets magazine.

But to get on those boards and make that 30%, those “missing” 5,400 women have to fight their own way to the top.

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