Claire Ighodaro is living proof that the opportunities for women to hold senior executive roles and directorships of large companies are there for the taking. A past president of CIMA, her board roles have included non-executive director of Lloyd’s of London, the Banking Code Standards Board and UK Trade & Investment; trustee of the British Council; and council member of the Open University.
Having begun her career at Otis Elevators in 1979, she joined BT as a management and development accountant and, later, a senior project manager. She rapidly rose through senior management positions before becoming vice president for finance of BTOpenworld, the UK’s first mass-market broadband internet service.
Ighodaro now holds many directorships of UK companies and international organisations, and is an active mentor in private and public sector programmes. Married with three children, she was awarded a CBE in 2008 for services to business.
Times have changed for women leaders
In the UK, 12.2% of directorships are held by women. The proportion is similar in many other countries: 15% in the US, 16% in South Africa, and 17% in Bulgaria. As one would expect, countries such as Saudi Arabia, with only 0.1%, lag far behind. The notable exception is Norway, where legislation specifying quotas for female board members has led to over 44% of directorships going to women.
‘It’s difficult for women to get to the top,
but it’s accepted they can lead’
Although most countries have a relatively low proportion of female directors, there has nevertheless been a dramatic change in attitudes in recent years, to which Ighodaro can testify from her experience.
‘Top level statistics for women in FTSE 100 companies are not brilliant, but there is not the sort of glass ceiling there was ten or 15 years ago. Back then it was strange to see women in leadership, but now it is expected. It is still difficult for women to get to the top, but it is now accepted that women can lead,’ she says. ‘In my experience, I don’t find that women are treated any differently. The paradox is that there is no longer a feeling that boards are sexist, but the statistics have not caught up with reality.’
Does having children account for the discrepancy?
The fact that women take time out if they wish to have children cannot be avoided, but the changing attitudes Ighodaro has observed mean that in many organisations this should no longer be an impediment to advancement. With the right dialogue between the woman and her organisation, it should be possible to plan around her absence.
‘Some women argue that childbirth should not get in the way, but the reality is that there is an impact. But, you can manage around women having children, especially in a large organisation. And, some women don’t want it all. Having children is not the main driver,’ remarks Ighodaro. ‘Research I set up when I was at BT showed that women left the organisation for bigger opportunities and challenges or to experience different cultures.
‘You can manage around
women having children’
‘It is not always about babies: although that is an important reason, it is hard to believe that is the major barrier. I see women in the City – accountants and lawyers – who have children and come back as effective as before. As a younger woman in a job that requires a lot of travel it may be more difficult when you have a family. But now, men are more involved in caring for the family, so the work/life balance is as important for them as for women, and that is now recognised.’
Does a woman have to be like a man?
As most boardrooms are still dominated by men, it may seem that to progress to that level a woman might have to act like the male bosses in an organisation to fulfil the expectations of a leadership role. Ighodaro understands that this may be tempting, but advises against it.
‘I once thought I had to emulate my male bosses, but I don’t think it is necessary. Things like professionalism, leadership, good risk taking and strategic thinking are not necessarily male characteristics,’ she says.
Even if she doesn’t have to act like her male colleagues, does a woman have to do put more into her job to get ahead?
‘Most women probably feel they do have to work harder to get ahead, but this may just be their perception. It could be that women have a different approach to being diligent, so they work harder on the important things, and they need to be noticed so they may put in that 10% more,’ notes Ighodaro.
Equality through opportunity
The example of Norway is often cited as a success story in getting more women into senior leadership roles, given its high proportion of female directors. Nevertheless, many successful women – including Ighodaro – believe that there is no need to turn to legislation to ensure women’s leadership skills are recognised.
‘Legislation is not the answer, although it has been successful in Norway. It would be sad if that was the only way to get intelligent and committed women into leadership roles. Some women feel that it is, but I don’t want things that I have achieved to be given to me in a tokenistic way. It is possible if you have a level playing field and proper development opportunities for both male and female staff,’ she believes.
‘Some senior men have felt uncomfortable pushing women forward or giving meaty roles to them, but that attitude is shifting as the younger generation comes up. Women don’t need protecting from a tough life.’
‘It would be sad if legislation was the
only way to get women into leadership’
The way forward, Ighodaro believes, is not to legislate for gender, but to look beyond it. ‘The ideal would be to look at the skills and experience of each individual, although you do need diversity, and women can offer something different to men. However, it is not helpful to look at gender characteristics in a broad way when you are looking at who will be a good leader,’ she remarks. ‘Management needs to take a deep breath and look at the best person for each role, whatever their gender.’
‘As women, we must be part of the solution. We must put ourselves forward for these roles. Stop worrying about not being accepted, just get on with it.’