29 Jun 2012

Career clinic: the gender imbalance

Mark Freebairn argues that we all need to address the issue of gender imbalance at the top of business

Headhunters are blind when it comes to recruitment. If there is discrimination in the recruitment process it does not come through the recruiters’ involvement. We only care about one thing and that is finding the right person for the job.

Who that person is and where they come from is irrelevant as long as they are right. Internal, external, national, international, male, female, experienced, inexperienced… It does not matter as long as you are able to do superbly the role for which we are recruiting and you suit the culture – and vice versa.

Maybe I’ve been lucky in my career. I have only ever worked in recruitment, which is a sector dominated by a large number of brilliant women. For my entire working life I have found myself working for and alongside men and women. In the two companies where I have worked there has always been a 50:50 gender split throughout every layer of the organisation. So the concept of discrimination never enters my head.

Yet I see the same statistics you all do. And I run very senior board finance events, and see the split between men and women who attend them, so I am clearly aware of the diversity issues businesses face.

I was asked to attend a conference last month. It was for finance directors and controllers at group or divisional level from right across the UK. More than 100 people attended. There was as wide a range of business size and scale and ownership structure and sector as I have ever seen. Salary levels ranged from £70,000 to £180,000.

At the event I ran a course on career development within finance. I have done this before – quite often for businesses at the request of CFOs – which probably means CFOs are a lot more trusting than their title would have you believe. As I walked into the room I quickly scanned to see how many people were there – at a rough estimate I reckoned we had about 60. But it was only as I got to the podium and looked around the room properly that I noticed that of the 60 or so people in there only four were women. Yet when I give these sorts of talks for companies the split is far more equal.

I have no idea why the audience in the room was so male dominated. I don’t think it was because of me, and closer inspection of the list of attendees showed again that the group was ultimately male dominated. But I know that the proportions of men and women working at those salary levels in finance across business in the UK is nowhere near as male dominated as my test group would have you believe.

So why was I speaking to a sea of male faces? I genuinely don’t know. I can speculate: the course was held outside London and required an overnight stay; it really was something to do with me; women don’t perceive the value of networking as highly as men do – although the women I spoke to at the conference definitely did. There could be a million reasons but the bottom line is that I know these women exist because I meet them and see them regularly.

Events like this are useful in career development for lots of reasons and there should have been a more even split of attendees. Driving the career paths of middle management women has to be the most effective way of realigning the gender imbalance at the top of business. We all need to find ways of achieving that.

Mark Freebairn




Mark Freebairn is partner and head of financial management practice at recruitment consultancy Odgers Berndtson