Growing female leaders from the grass roots

December 10, 2014 11:42 am
View All Posts

by Charlotte Cousins

The professional gap between men and women has been a long standing topic of discussion. In 2011, Lord Davies set out suggested ‘voluntary guidelines’ for the number of women that should appear on the Board of Directors for FTSE 100 companies. These recommendations have proved successful when reviewing the statistics; women now represent over 20% of FTSE 100 board members. There have been doubts that the FTSE would reach Lord Davies proposed target of 25% by 2015 but at the current rate of turnover of board positions it seems that it might just make it, albeit a close call, rather than a clear victory.

However, is this really the right way to change the values and beliefs of generations of not only men but also women?

The majority of people would agree that positions should be filled through merit, not through quotas. In the ever-decreasing world of margin, companies are looking for more forward thinking and creative ways to set themselves apart from their rivals. In order to do this, it is not about gender equality but looking for the most talented, capable and innovative staff throughout the professional hierarchy. In order to maximise the opportunity and add diversity to decision making there has to be a balance between males and females. Decision making involving men and women allows for fresh ideas, alternative perspectives and wider experiences to be discussed to generate progressive and responsible decision making. With enhanced decision making comes a higher performing and more productive business operation. Superior performance drives an increase in quality and customer satisfaction which in turn raises market share and profit.


Traditionally the manufacturing industry has had difficulty finding, appointing and retaining women. In order to turn this around, the industry needs to take note of the lessons learned and the progress made by the aforementioned FTSE 100 companies; we need to make manufacturing more marketable and attractive to prospective female employees by improving the image and branding of careers in this industry.
A particular challenge the manufacturing industry faces is being able to challenge the traditional values and approaches which have been embedded and rooted within the industry culture. These traditional beliefs often lead to an environment of unconscious bias as there is an image of ‘what a leader should look like’ and ‘how a boss should act’ which stem from the days of the male-dominated environment. Industrial practices have progressed and with them so should perceptions and attitudes of what makes a good leader.
With this in mind, we are currently weathering a vicious circle of endorsements and suggestions. Change needs to happen, but in order for the change to begin we need more women at the top of businesses. These women will then have the opportunity to act as role models and aspirational mentors for young women in business. In order to get the right women with the right capabilities at the top we need visibility throughout the professional pyramid from grass roots level with more girls opting for STEM subjects at GCSE through to Degree level. Without the appropriate role models it becomes harder to promote this.

Cross Migration

There are several cross migratory lessons that business can take from sport. England Netball, England Rugby and England Football have all focused their efforts on a junior squad of players to build solid foundations for future success. This is the mentality that the manufacturing industry needs to adopt with their grass roots (STEM schooling) in order to guarantee success in the future.

Managing Talent

As women in business, we need to become more confident in promoting ourselves and the great work we are doing in the workplace. Studies have shown that women have an innate discomfort with self-promotion and a fear of failure. This needs to be addressed to allow us to become our own best marketing tool and improve our visibility within the workplace. In addition to this, those responsible for recruitment and talent management have to take this in to consideration when hiring from a pool of potential employees.


If we want the highest performing and most productive companies we need a balance of experience and perceptions within the decision-making process. My experience has led me to conclude that we need an increase in female role models and mentors. This would be invaluable to help motivate and invigorate the relatively small pool of female manufacturing employees up through the ranks. This, in turn, would allow an increase in the number of females coming in at the grass roots level to be targeted. Only then will the industry be able to evolve from the current low levels of female engagement and develop a better balance of male and female inclusion at all levels.