Jacqueline O’Donovan, Managing Director, O’Donovan Waste Disposal, writes about Theresa May’s apoointment and what it means for women.
Last week witnessed a huge shift in gender politics, as Theresa May stepped into the role of Prime Minister. Her success has dominated headlines, with her cabinet reshuffle resulting in women making up 30 per cent of the cabinet, matching Blair’s cabinet for the highest number of women.
Throughout all of this recent news, it has been interesting to observe how little has been made of her being a female prime minister. Yes, there have been references to Thatcher, but as a whole, the focus has mainly been on her policy and experience in parliament rather than her upbringing and family life, a refreshing shift towards the normalisation of women as leaders.
This trend matches May’s own policies, which have placed a greater emphasis on establishing Britain as a meritocracy. Coming from an industry that is still predominately male, I am hoping that this recent news will be a breath of fresh air into areas most women steer away from, as it shows that the emphasis is moving away from gender and towards ability, encouraging women to go for roles even if they have been traditionally associated with men.
Being a female managing director in the construction industry, I have worked hard to encourage women into the sector, whether it be through apprenticeships or mentoring women in managerial roles. In 2014, a UCATT survey revealed that women make up only 11 percent of the construction workforce – a low, yet unsurprising number. When asked about the challenges they faced working in a predominately male area, the top three problems were a lack of promotion prospects, lower pay than their male colleagues and feeling isolated. With Theresa May breaking the mold, it is time for women to recognise that they are more than capable of tackling areas and roles which have traditionally been held by their male counterparts
From mentoring women in the industry, I have noticed a common theme among them when broaching the subject of gender in leadership. Many have dealt with assumptions being made about their abilities and because of this, they have lost confidence in themselves. I faced tough conversations with Bank Managers in my early days as MD, as many were not used to dealing with a young woman within the industry, but I took great pride in letting the numbers do the talking. It is time for women to be proud of talents and be willing to talk about their achievements, rather than wait for them to be noticed.
An often quoted statistic from Hewlett Packard’s internal report is that men apply for a job when they meet only 60 per cent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 per cent. It is time that women adopt this male trait, and I believe this is something May will encourage – she herself picked ‘Walk Like a Man’ when she was on Desert Island Discs – perhaps hinting at what is to come?
Alongside giving women more confidence in their own abilities, this is a great opportunity to address the male perception of women in leadership.
I was fortunate to have a solid work team around me at O’Donovan, but I can appreciate that many women struggle with gaining acceptance from other men in their industry. We operate at what I call “the dirty end of logistics”, and there are far less women operating vehicles and machinery compared to other parts of the industry. Half the battle is addressing the stigma that assumes that some areas are ‘male’ and a key way of changing this is through education. By educating men in male dominated areas, we can begin presenting women as equals rather than outsiders.
Last year, UK firms hit the 25 per cent target of female representatives on FTSE 100 boards. Although this is progress, there is still a long way to go before that number can reach 50 per cent. This appointment is the perfect time for more women to take on mentoring roles to give women more confidence. It is also a good time for male industries to begin engaging with schools directly to educate younger girls about the range of careers available to them, as one of the greatest obstacles is a lack of awareness of what options are out there.
I have every confidence that Theresa May and her new female cabinet ministers will address the still prominent misconception that women are less capable then men when it comes to leadership, as we need more examples of women breaking into traditionally male industries.