St Paul's Institute

Women in Leadership: A Reflection

by Hannah Elias and The Very Revd Dr David Ison

Posted: 29 Jul 2014

The gradual unwinding of patronising patriarchy in the Church of England took another step forward this month, as we celebrated with our colleagues that the movement to enable women to be bishops had been accepted at the General Synod. Surely, there was no better way to celebrate this news than to gather nearly 1500 women and men from different disciplines and backgrounds under the dome of St Paul's Cathedral to put this into the context of what happens in the rest of our society. Though much progress has been made - with the Church often lagging behind - we still have some lengths to travel before we have gender parity in leadership positions across every social sector. On 16 July, we were privileged to have Shami Chakrabarti, Frances O'Grady, Liz Bingham, Ceri Goddard and the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin speak to us about the ways we can dismantle the cultural and institutional barriers that have prevented many women from reaching positions of leadership.

In the United Kingdom, we have more men sitting in our current parliament than the number of female MPs ever elected. It is only this year that every company in the FTSE 100 has included at least one female board member. In 2012, there remained a 9.6% gap in pay between men and women, and women were over 3 times more likely to be working part time than men.[1] Maternity leave can become an obstacle from which many promising careers never fully recover.

Our speakers tackled the causes of these problems in different ways, but they all described how these inequalities are rooted in the structure of our society and the character of our culture.

Power, Liz Bingham reminded us, is not easily surrendered by those who have it. Her experience at EY has proved there is no "business argument for inequality," as companies become more profitable and more productive when gender balanced, rather than weighted to either gender. But resistance to change remains strongly entrenched.

This reluctance comes from a moral failure to perceive the true value and worth of those who have been excluded from power. As all our speakers reminded us, we must challenge ourselves to fully recognise each other's humanity before we will find respect and equality for all. We cannot discount individuals based on criteria of age, gender, race or sexuality. Exclusion and inequality may have been endemic, but it need not be permanent. Rose Hudson-Wilkin shared her experience of challenging not only sexual but also racial stereotypes, internally as well as externally - we have to believe in the equality of men and women, and then act on it in our own lives as well as encouraging others.

So how exactly do we create change?

Policy shifts and legislative changes can offer one way forward, Frances O'Grady suggested. We can change workplace cultures by working towards universal access to flexible working hours, something that would have a clear benefit for those who care for children, the elderly or disabled, and affirm the value of the caring work they do. Long working days and rewards for presenteeism should be discouraged. Better funding for child care and care homes could help many return to work sooner. Longer maternity and paternity leaves can encourage new mums and dads to have an even share of the work in the early days of child rearing. And we must continue to insist on equal pay for all. These changes will not just benefit working women, but people of all backgrounds, genders and ages.

Ceri Goddard encouraged us to rethink the status quo, and challenge our ideas of merit. Merit has been defined in largely masculine terms, by an elite that has enjoyed privileged access to education and opportunity. We need an idea of merit that is inclusive, one that celebrates difference instead of sameness.

We can create change by paying attention to the wisdom of those who have broken barriers, and by encouraging those who are still climbing. We must extend, as Frances put it, "a hand up and a hand down," seeking mentoring opportunities from those who have been there before, and then sharing our own experiences by educating young women.

Unfortunately, many more questions were submitted on the night than we were able to answer. Four people were called to the microphone out of the 100 who submitted questions. Some were seeking advice on how to tackle sexism in the workplace; others asked how to overturn the gendered language associated with leadership roles, how to challenge stereotypes, how to balance home and work responsibilities, and why men aren't presented with the same challenges as women. We hope to address some more of these questions in separate blog pieces over the coming weeks and months.

We were moved and impressed by the energy, enthusiasm and willingness to participate shown by our audience. The vast majority of them were between the ages of 20 and 35. This generation is ready and eager for the imbalances they are witnessing in their workplaces to be challenged and removed. We urge every one of you to continue to push for change over the coming days, weeks and months, whether that means encouraging people around you, providing support for your colleagues, or stepping forward to lead yourself.

We will make change together, though solidarity and fellowship, through mentorship and support, through the choices we make in our own lives, and the things we cry out for in unison.

As Shami Chakrabarti said in her closing remarks, we must tackle this injustice in our families, social circles, and work places as well as in our legislation. It is up to each of us to continue to push for change.

After all, as Eleanor Marx said in 1870 during her campaign for an 8 hour work day, "This is not the end, but only the beginning of the struggle. [...] we must speak for the cause daily and make the men and women that we meet come into the ranks and help us. Rise like lions after the slumber in unvanquishable numbers. Shake your chains to the earth like dew which in sleep had fallen on you. Ye are many. They are few."

A full video of this event is available to view here.   

[1] Government Equalities Office, Think Act Report, 2013. Based on the findings of the Office of National Statistics. More recent ONS findings have put the gender pay gap at 13% in London -

About this author

Hannah Elias is the event co-ordinator for the Women in Leadership series. The Very Revd Dr David Ison is the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.