Skip to content

Handbags in the Boardroom

Following the recent appointment of Theresa May as the UK’s Prime Minister, there is perhaps no more of an appropriate time to discuss the presence of women in the workplace, and more specifically, the Boardroom. And as someone who has devoted her career to exploring gender diversity issues and to raising the profile of senior female professionals, there are few people greater qualified to speak on the subject than Sandra Green.

Sandra works as an Executive Coach for Women Leaders, is the Founder of the Women Leaders’ Association and is currently publishing her first book which cites and explores some of the reasons, 36 to be precise, why women encounter barriers when attempting to reach the same level in their careers as their male counterparts.

Rullion was keen to speak with Sandra to uncover her thoughts on this complex topic, including why gender equality continues to exist in today’s society and what organisations and those individuals affected can do in bridging the gap.

Handbags in the boardroom

Professional problems

Whilst coaching women in senior roles, Sandra has heard numerous accounts of her clients having experienced gender inequality in the workplace; from females being overlooked for opportunities that they are more than qualified for, to sexist comments from management and peers, or differing pay rates for men and women in the same role.

Sandra states, “We need to let the world know that this is going on and that it’s a very real problem.”

Blaming the issues partly on society, Sandra claims that we are all conditioned from an early age.

“From school, we’re conditioned. On my daughter’s reports we’re told she does really well, tries really hard, is diligent and all of these words encompass who she is. On my son’s reports the kind of language used is ‘I’m sure he’ll get there one day’- so much more relaxed.” Sandra continued to explain that it is often accepted that boys may put less effort into their education, but the expectation is that they will still succeed. Girls, on the other hand, are expected to be diligent, hard workers who will go the extra mile in order to achieve their goals.

According to Sandra, this attitude is then carried through to the workplace with women believing that the route to success is to constantly exceed intellectually. In reality this is rarely the case. Sandra said, “I’ve seen very capable women overlooked for promotion whilst men get the job. I’ve seen that so many times and it drives me insane.”

Sandra told us that a recent report stated that the recommendation for female board representation is 33% by 2020; “It’s currently at 25%, so that leaves us four years [for improvement].” She claims that even in 2016 “we still haven’t got the right people in the right places.”

And that, says Sandra is a lost opportunity. “When we only involve half of our workforce in leadership, it limits our ability to engage our teams and our customers, find creative solutions to problems and this puts us at a competitive disadvantage.”

So in a culture where organisations now understand that diversity is key, we asked Sandra why women still experience ‘hitting the glass ceiling’.

She responded, “There are a number of different areas for consideration. There are organisational issues – things like flexible working and allowing women time to pick up the children, or even elderly parents – it’s not just about kids...there’s the whole work/life balance debate.

There are also bias issues – unconscious as well as conscious bias – we’re all familiar with those.”

But if it seems all too easy to point the finger at society or employers, Sandra also suggests that there are a number of things women can do empower themselves and take back control of their own professional destiny.

She tells us that another reason for some of the challenges is that “...women often navigate their careers differently to men. Men are much better than women at saying what they want and are more comfortable talking about what they’ve done, why they’ve done it, how they’ve done it. Sandra continues, “Women, on the other hand, tend to find it harder to put themselves out there. Women can be inclined to keep their work to themselves instead of saying ‘look what I’ve done’, but you absolutely have to do that at a certain level”, she says. “There’s a whole area around confidence...we have to showcase more women.”

And this is where Sandra’s expertise comes in to play. Her Handbags in the Boardroom coaching programmes provide women with the knowledge, tools and perhaps most importantly the self-confidence to rise above the barriers that they may face.

Clients of the coach explain how refreshing it is to take time out of their busy schedules to think about themselves and their development.

Sandra says “You’ve got to! If you’re leading other people and racing around at 100mph and aren’t clear about what you’re doing and why, it’s important you slow down.” Sandra’s programme includes, amongst other things, clients wearing a heart monitor to highlight how they cope with certain aspects of their day and to assess sleep quality.

“Don’t just be on a hamster wheel and tread through life”, she advises, “I just believe that we have to have impact, whatever that means for each of us.”

Diversity and inclusion

Banishing the barriers

Practicing what she preaches, when Sandra saw her career heading in a direction she didn’t want to go in, she made the life-changing decision to set up her own coaching business. With senior training, learning and development roles for large well-known retailers under her belt, Sandra decided to expand upon her passion for developing others. This, combined with an interest in gender diversity, saw the aptly named ‘Handbags in the Boardroom’ go from dream to reality in 2013.

Sandra is also the founder of the Women Leaders’ Association - a networking and leadership development programme for women. “You get some really good female networkers, but on the whole, I don’t believe that women are very good at it. It can feel a bit cheesy, walking into a room having to hand out your card – I can’t wait to scurry back home. The vision behind the network was to make it easier for women”, she said.

Networking and collaboration, for Sandra, are crucial for women wanting to elevate their career. She told us that if she had to choose one thing as the biggest barrier to women it would be a lack of visibility.

Linked to the thought that women are perhaps not as adept as men at putting themselves out there, Sandra advises people to identify individuals both outside of, and within their business, who can assist in raising their profile. One chief executive recently explained to Sandra that he is keen to bring more women into his business but is unable to find them.

Sandra stresses the significance of the powerbase. “Who is in your powerbase? Who do you need to get known with? Who do you know and who knows you? What do they know about you? What do you need to know and why? Who can sponsor me?” she asks. Building relationships and mixing in the right circles are essential steps in climbing the ladder.

“I do quite a lot of belief change too”, told Sandra. “I help people at a deeper level to shift some of the beliefs they’ve held onto so they can see the potential in themselves.” Confidence and mindset underpin all of the elements of Sandra’s programme. She continued “A lovely tip I have taken from Marissa Peer’s book, Ultimate Confidence, is to write the words ‘I am enough’ on sticky notes and stick them everywhere – on your dashboard, your kettle, your bathroom mirror, your bedside. Your family think you’re a bit nuts, but ultimately you don’t notice the words anymore, yet they’re going in subconsciously and it can really transform you. It’s a powerful and simple technique, and that’s me; I’m really into practical things that people can implement.”

Part of Sandra’s work is to assist her clients in dealing with stress. “So it’s not about getting rid of the stress, it [the coaching] won’t do that, but we can change how we respond to the stresses and strains we put on our body”, she explains.

In line with the above, Sandra also confirms the importance of women understanding their value. “This goes for guys as well – you need to be clear about what it is that you do well, how you do it and what your uniqueness is”, she says. Sandra’s coaching programme involves 360 feedback, self assessment and tests like Myers Briggs and the Gallop Strengths Finder, the results of which can then be used to create your own unique set of values. “When you get really angry or frustrated about something, that’s when you know that you have found one of your values.” Once you understand your USPs, what your natural strengths and talents are, the easier it becomes to realise how you can add value.

A further recommendation from the coach is mentoring. She shared “Members of the Women Leaders’ Association get trained as a mentor. I’m a big fan of mentoring...it’s very simple and cost effective.”

And a final piece of advice from Sandra? If you’re really not happy in a job, leave. “If it isn’t working out for you, go and find something else”, she suggests. “There will be a place, an environment, an organisation that will meet your values and your needs. You’ll get the recognition somewhere else.”

One lady who went through Sandra’s programme went so far as to describe the experience as an ‘epiphany’. The employee’s Chief Executive recently called Sandra to explain the difference he had seen. She relayed him describing how his colleague’s confidence has gone through the roof, along with her ability to work with others. Rather than being emotional, the CEO explained how the coachee was connecting differently with people, less emotionally, whilst being authentic and noticeably happy in her own skin.

A humble Sandra said “I sometimes wonder why some of these women need coaching at all. They’re just brilliant! I think sometimes everyone can see it, but if you can’t see it and feel it yourself then you’re limiting yourself. Working with a coach can open that up and show you the real you and you brilliance.” 

Branching out in your boardroom

But what can organisations which are struggling to get women leaders into the boardroom do? Sandra’s opinion is that any company should start by pulling together some data. Confirm the number of women you have working within your organisation and identify where they are, what level they’re at and their potential.

If you’re looking to get women into the Boardroom, identify whether there are potential existing contenders and if sponsoring and coaching would be sufficient to get an individual to the required level. If the women in your organisation are not at the necessary level, consider a women leaders’ programme.

“Now I know there can be issues around that, in that a women leaders’ programme could be seen to single women out”, admits Sandra, “but it should be promoted positively. When you’re in it and you talk about the issues and hear what other women do, it’s incredible – life changing, and that’s why you want to be in it.”

Sandra mentioned a woman she’d spoken with from a top construction firm who had returned to work after having children and wanted to get a ‘women returner’ network together. Sandra told Rullion, “It took her two years to get it up and running. She had to find a key sponsor; HR’s an obvious one, but if she could find a male, none- HR board member, even better.”

Next, she had to engage with lots of directors and influencers and speak to them about the issues, about how many women with potential are leaving the organisation and about what other companies are doing. So, ultimately, if you’re going to invest in these programmes, you have to be mindful that it’s going to take a period of time to get people engaged.”

Further guidance that Sandra would offer to companies is to simply be mindful of the issues that women can experience. She described how women’s leadership styles and skills are often different to men’s, but where men are recruiting, they’re often looking for traits similar to their own - things like competitiveness and drive. It’s not to say that women don’t demonstrate these behaviours, but they may portray them in different ways with other qualities such as empathy and collaboration being more apparent.

“Remember they won’t always shout, they won’t put their hand up for a job unless they feel they tick every single box.” adds Sandra, “Women need to be reminded that they’re doing a great job.”

Sandra Green’s book Handbags in the Boardroom: 36 Reasons why women don’t make it to the Boardroom and what you can do about it, is available on www.amazon.co.uk.

Rullion - Diverse and Inclusive Workforce