Encouraging more women to assume leadership roles

27 October 2017

With women ducking out of the finance and technology sectors at early ages, industry leaders are lending their voices to the diversity discussion. Eleanor Wilson talks to Maria Ferraro, CFO at Siemens UK, about Siemens’s new initiatives to encourage female leadership.

Four years ago, the only two female members of Siemens’s management board left the company. Efforts were made for the business to become a more welcoming place for women to work, with initiatives such as more flexible working hours; CEO Joe Kaiser considered instituting gender quotas to stem the tide. Despite this, the company’s current executive team of ten still features only two women. Siemens is not alone: only 9% of the UK’s engineering workforce is currently female, while the number of UK businesses with no women in senior management is at a 13-year high of 41%. It’s a symptom of an environment in which it’s far too easy to only pay lip service to gender parity.

For the engineering sector, the problem begins at school. Interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is steadily declining among students throughout the developed world, combined with a lingering gender imbalance among STEM university graduates. But, as those graduates move through their careers, rising to senior management and beyond, the increasingly stark disparity can no longer be blamed entirely on a small pool of female talent. Sticking to the letter of the law is clearly not enough to balance the gender split in the boardroom; it’s time for a corporate culture shift.

Righting the gender gap

Siemens UK’s executive team has a gender split of 88% men to 12% women, compared with 21% women throughout the division. In March, it unveiled Women into Leadership, created in partnership with gender-coaching consultancy Talking Talent. The programme targets female employees with leadership potential for a six-month series of coaching and mentoring sessions that aim to teach them to overcome the cultural barriers they will face on their way to the top. Among other skills, participants work on self-confidence, career planning, political savviness, and ‘presence and gravitas’.

“We are walking the walk,” says Maria Ferraro, chief financial officer at Siemens UK and the programme’s executive sponsor. “Out of the gate, we are a little short-handed in terms of diversity. So, from an industry perspective, we need to make more effort.”

Ferraro, along with an ‘inclusion steering committee’ with representatives in every department, manages the running of the initiative. Two groups have gone through so far and Ferraro, who is a mentor herself and personally kicks off each module, says that feedback has been positive and the programme now has a long waiting list.

“Participants see a tremendous change in their confidence levels and their ability to navigate through a political situation,” she says. “They learn how to effectively communicate in an environment where it may be a little more closed regarding different viewpoints.”

Cultivated leadership

That closed environment is why coaching female employees is only part of the battle. Unconscious bias means that men perceive women are dominating a conversation when they talk for 30% of a meeting and that, despite equal-opportunity hiring practices, male managers still tend to hire and promote employees that are more like them.

Talking Talent’s research found that one in three women say a lack of support from their line manager is a barrier to career progression. In response to this, Siemens UK chief executive Juergen Maier has introduced unconscious bias training for all managers, at every level. It is designed to provide triggers in managers’ minds, prompting them to be aware of subconscious prejudices and examine their decisions more closely.

“PowerPoint does not get culture to change: it has to be people-driven,” says Ferraro. “If I’m coaching in that way and then someone leaves my office and the culture is not embracing that, of course it’s not going to be successful. It’s creating an environment where people feel that it’s not just okay to speak up – it’s welcome.”

Although the finance world doesn’t exhibit quite the same lopsided gender ratios as engineering, much of Ferraro’s career has nevertheless been spent in large, industrial companies. In her current position, she feels that it’s time to give back.

“I am very familiar with companies being male-dominated and how to navigate through that. I personally see it as my duty to continue to help women,” she explains. “I’m privileged to have a leadership position in a company like Siemens that allows me to do what I love; it not only sees the value in it, but encourages it.”

Siemens aims to create a ‘speak-up culture’ among its employees to encourage them to express ideas and point out problems, confident that they will be heard. Ideally, in a company with a diverse workforce, speak-up culture means that those who may be marginalised will feel encouraged to contribute more often. When the only person who can see a problem feels confident enough to challenge group consensus, the business benefits.

Business benefits

Ethics aren’t the only drivers of workplace equality; there is plenty of evidence to show that diversity pays. A 2015 McKinsey study found that companies ranking highly for gender diversity were 15% more likely to produce higher returns, and the correlation was repeated at the bottom of the scale.

Research last year by the Harvard Business Review and the Center for Talent Innovation measured the returns of diversity by looking at it from two angles: inherent, based on age, gender and race; and “an acquired appreciation for difference” in the minds of a business’s leadership team. Companies considered diverse by this metric were 70% more likely to have captured a new market within the past year.

To finance-minded Ferraro, the rapidly evolving tech industry presents its own case for equal representation in its business practices.

“Our customers are diverse; the communities in which we operate are diverse,” she explains. “We need to ensure that we are attracting these diverse teams because, otherwise, you get things like groupthink – and in the changing global economy, that’s very dangerous.”

She sighs and then laughs at memories of conversations with other industry leaders who don’t see a problem with the current status quo.

“You’re limiting yourself in all aspects if you’re not embracing some of the change that’s happening around us,” she says. “If we continue to do that, the statistics say we’re shutting ourselves out of that future talent as well, and we just can’t afford to do that.”

Participants see a tremendous change in their confidence levels and their ability to navigate through a political situation.

The need to appeal to that talent pool is becoming more urgent as interest in STEM among high school students continues to shrink in developed countries, with Germany and the UK topping the list. A 2008 report by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found that children who switch off from studying STEM subjects in high school believe the work is boring and difficult, and are unconvinced that it will lead to an interesting or lucrative job. They “do not see scientists as people they could grow up to be”, the report concludes.

The IET found a sharp decline in interest from primary school to secondary school, which might be linked to the transition from hands-on learning to a more theoretical approach. While preteens are kept entertained with science fairs, practical experiments and things that go bang, older students are left unimpressed with dry calculations in classrooms. For girls, this is compounded by male-dominated courses, which, in a self-perpetuating cycle, further discourage them from enrolling.

School-age solutions

Siemens is targeting this with SeeWomen, an interactive stage show and workshop series for British girls’ secondary schools, launched on International Women’s Day (8 March) last year, in partnership with the Girls’ Schools Association; BAFTA-nominated Children’s BBC science presenter Fran Scott was its first presenter. The show highlights modern female role models in STEM fields and features ‘STEM ambassadors’ from Siemens, with activities and a few attention-grabbing explosions. The hope is that positive images of women engineers – and of engineering as a career – will prompt schoolgirls to imagine themselves as tomorrow’s STEM stars.

“To address the pipeline issue, we need to get into schools. It takes all of us together to ensure that we’re not limiting these girls to what they see in front of them as their current path.” Says Ferraro, whose nine-year-old daughter is keen to be a scientist or astronaut – although, she admits, “that varies to an actress and dancer some days”.

SeeWomen is part of Siemens’s Curiosity Project, a collection of sponsored education initiatives that the company says delivers £11 million in social value every year to address STEM’s image problem with school-age children. It includes teaching materials and resources for parents; Siemens is also working on ways to digitise SeeWomen to be more accessible.

In Ferraro’s words, the combination of SeeWomen and Women Into Leadership is “very nicely book-ended”. But there’s plenty of time between secondary school and senior management for discouraged girls and women to change their minds. Even those who graduate high school with STEM in their sights don’t always stay the course.

A recent study from the University of Massachusetts found that female engineering students paired with female mentors were more confident and motivated than those without mentors and those mentored by men. They believed themselves to be more accepted and better able to do the work; they felt like they belonged. Not a single female-mentored student left the course early, while their unmentored peers had a drop-out rate of 11% in their first year.

The industry is starting to realise that quotas can’t fix a hearts-and-minds problem that starts in schools, and that it takes more than an equal-hiring policy to create a welcoming corporate environment. Just as there is no substitute for the business benefits of diverse opinions, there’s also no better way to make that happen than by confronting the problem head-on, with the courage to examine one’s prejudices. The next generation of influential leaders will be those who have learned to walk that walk.

SeeWoman is an interactive stage show and workshop series for UK girls’ schools.
Maria Ferraro is inspiring school-age girls to get involved in the finance and STEM industries.