16 December 2010 By Northern Lights
“If you have two people who think alike, one is unnecessary”
What a great quote!
Linda Emery, Talent and Diversity Director at BP referred to this when I met her recently, following up on Bob Dudley’s invitation at the CBI Conference.
In October I wrote a blog on the conference, “Bob Dudley, new group chief exec at BP, talked about the BP crisis, how it was handled and what they are now doing differently. I got to ask him a question … what is being done about their culture and a better gender balance in senior management? He suggested we talk”
Linda was kind enough to be the one to follow up on this. We had an hour together and she talked about wide-ranging initiatives throughout the business to encourage more diversity generally and particularly more women into senior positions.
Linda is clearly genuine and passionate about this – and backed up by senior management. Previously at Unilever, she agreed that BP has a different culture – in a consumer-facing business it is easier to be entirely focused on consumer opinion. It drives everything they do.
In an engineering business, the outlook is different. Customers are more complex, safety and technical expertise the absolute focus.
We both agreed that business would be better for having men and women at the top and throughout (and hence the quote above!). BP is actively encouraging this with a Women’s International Network as part of the process. Apparently the mood and culture of this Network is different from the rest of the business – really difficult to define specifically, but the women’s view is that they tend to cut to the chase quicker, there is more laughter and no standing on ceremony.
I mentioned an article that Alison Maitland, formerly of the FT, wrote for Management Today. She interviewed a number of male chief execs who had daughters in successful careers. The fathers began to look at their own businesses through their daughters’ eyes and asked themselves, ‘am I the boss I’d like my daughters to have?’ Their answers have led to these bosses speeding up the role of women in their companies.
Linda said that BP is at the forefront in their approach to diversity, and benchmarks well with peers. But they are not at all complacent and recognise there is still a long way to go. They have a diversity plan, training for all senior managers to raise awareness of potential unconscious bias and build a number of aspects of diversity and inclusion into performance contracts.
However, BP says it will be difficult to get more women into senior roles – there are just fewer women who do sciences at school, get science and engineering degrees and go into technical jobs. By its nature, there are fewer women available for senior positions.
Thinking about this after, I wonder if the assumption that you need technical people in the top jobs of a company like BP is part of the problem?
Doing a bit of Google search, I found Katrina Landis, currently chief executive of BP Alternative Energy. Her degrees are in Psychology and Computer Science and her main specialism within BP has been commercial.
Clearly Katrina is comfortable with science but not had a deeply technical background. Which surely means that the top people at BP could have broader expertise and backgrounds?
And wouldn’t the management team be stronger if it had more people with no or little technical expertise – a few managers who ask the stupid question? And who could be men or women?
I think so – what do you think?
Great that you’re asking challenging questions of big companies, Victoria. We could do with more of this. But the ‘solutions’ at BP seem depressingly familiar. How is the women’s network going to change the culture? And is it really enough to ‘benchmark’ against peers? Few companies do well on gender diversity at the top, so this is setting the bar rather low. If a company is really serious about this, and convinced of the business case, why not break out and become the trend-setter? Some have succeeded in doing so – it just takes imagination and some lateral thinking to hire from outside the usual confines.
Why does it have to be it be the “stupid question” we ask????
It all comes down to the fact that it would seem that we do not encourage girls and young women, to truly understand in an early part of their life the significance and importance of building a wide skills base and how this can be of benefit to them in the future.
I have just spent a few days in London listening to head-hunters talk about how we don’t have enough women with operational and international experience who they can then put forward for executive positions – and yet I firmly believe that if these women had realised the importance of getting this experience in an early part of their career when they had the ability to have a year abroad or in operations, they would have put themselves forward for it as an insurance for their future potential executive optimisation.
We need to ensure that more women do have a wider base of skills experience, before they specialise in the market they choose.
It’s about choice, this isn’t whether a woman is interested in engineering or technical sectors, but whether she has the skills appropriate to the job, and before we can guarantee more women taking up these opportunities, we need to ensure that women are made fully aware of the broad range of skills they require to develop and prepare for the future, thereby allowing them the choice to choose whatever sector of business that interests them, and which they can use their skills and talent to be a valued and effective member of the team, whether that be at board or senior level regardless of sector.
Years ago I was an active promoter and participant in women’s networks and I was firmly of the belief that my daughter would be able to engage in a world on terms that were significantly more balanced.
It is disappointing to see how wrong I was so I am unenthusiastic to read of BP’s Women’s International Network, particularly when I hear there is “so much more laughter”. If technical, engineering and operational experience is so critical at the most senior levels in businesses like BP, then why not take steps much earlier in the careers of women to train them in this essential knowledge.
Bring in bright female graduates from any academic discipline and then give them the specific learnings and experience that they will need to progress to the top of the business.
Invest in them early in their careers rather than waiting until it is too late so grey haired men can shake their heads and say “if only we had more technically minded women at the top of our business.” Active career management and determination to invest in women at the outset of their careers is the only way to ensure success.
Women’s networks are a comfort blanket for managment. They make little or no difference and can make women look less able (all that laughter!). What makes a difference is women believing in themselves and believing that they have real opportunity and be willing to pay the price for it – and that is the price that men pay, not something discounted because we are women.
More women are needed in science and engineering to get to the top of companies where that background matters but I managed to run a global technology company with a history degree so its not a complete block.
Women need to be encouraged at all levels to take the opportunities that are there – training, mentoring and role models are what is needed and a realistic view from women of their ambitions.
Many thanks to you all for valuable and thought-provoking comments.
I am a great believer in ‘stupid questions’ though – and think these can jolt people to look at their business in a very different way. They produce some of the most creative and innovative solutions.
I agree with all your comments that we should help women gain specific expertise and skills early on. Thinking back, I did Maths and Physics A’ Levels and joined Plessey Aerospace as a graduate trainee. So I was happy to be technical – just didn’t enjoy the confrontational, male culture of manufacturing in those days. I know a number of female engineers who changed career route for similar reasons.
These comments in essence are saying that women’s networks within a company are divisive, companies need to look at cultures and development practices from the very start of a career – and in a very different way – and benchmarking against peers is not good enough. We need some imaginative trendsetters to solve what really should not be that difficult.
I love the thought of male bosses asking themselves ‘Am I the boss I’d like my daughter to have?’ I have had good and bad bosses of both sexes, and good and bad clients of both, too. Personally, I would be hugely insulted if I were not judged on a level playing field with every other candidate for every job I’ve had and promotion I’ve achieved.
It matters to me that I’ve achieved what I have on my own merits. But it also matters hugely that women are better represented at senior level in all businesses. It was a stark realisation when myself and Fiona (the other Bright Women founder) found ourselves in a tiny minority once we reached Director level in our industry (advertising).
Which is why we started our blog and will be launching some new ‘women returning to work’ initiatives this year, as this is often the point where women get it wrong and lose their professional reputation and acumen, through no fault of their own.
Our aim is to help women manage the transition from mother back to businesswomen as smoothly and successfully as possible. Having said all of that, I was lucky enough to mentor groups of teenagers last week in an event promoting professional female role models to young women with low aspirations.
It was so gratifying to see them open up to the possibility that they had a lot to offer the professional world, and that they could achieve a lot more than they had previously imagined