August 10, 2018

Should you pour the coffee in meetings? The surprising barriers to career progression


By Catherine Wickman, Partner, Financial Services, CCM

Sarah Cooper writes in the Financial Times of six things working women should pretend they can’t do, lest they be pigeonholed.

In summary, the offending skills are: taking notes, party planning, interior decoration, making coffee, handling social media and answering the phone.

The list may be light-hearted, but could something as simple as pouring the coffee in meetings really impact career progression?

The most recent update from the government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review, which showed that women still significantly lag behind men in occupying positions on boards, suggests that it could.

The update showed that 29% of FTSE 100 board positions are now held by women, an increase from 12.5% in 2011, although progress in the FTSE 350 has been slower, with 25.5% of board positions now held by women.

Sir Philip Hampton, Chair of the Hampton-Alexander Review commented that, “Far too many companies still have no women – or only one woman – on their board”.

Explanations from companies for not appointing women to their boards included: ‘they don’t fit in’, ‘they don’t want the hassle or pressure’ and ‘there aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex’.

In this light, advising women to pretend they can’t make coffee or answer the phones looks less tongue in cheek and increasingly like important career advice. The examples may be flippant, but the evidence suggests that the underlying point – the importance of positioning – is a serious one.

If there are a number of top companies with no women on their boards, companies with female Chief Executives are rarer still, especially in the Financial Services sector.

This makes Australian investment bank Macquarie Group’s recent announcement that Shemara Wikramanayake will be its first female Chief Executive all the more remarkable. Globally, she is the first female Chief Executive of a major investment bank.

What perspectives can she offer?

Ms Wikramanayake is a home-grown talent, having successfully run Macquarie Asset Management for ten years, and worked at Macquarie for 30 years.

Following her appointment Ms Wikramanayake said, “Macquarie in the 30 years I’ve been here has always been a meritocracy. I have not found barriers. I find we try to allow the best people to do the best things and we try to draw the best out of people.”

She believes there are issues inherent in the sector, however, saying, “We as an industry are not attracting enough females. In terms of allowing them to develop we need to provide more flexibility.”

She goes on to suggest that unconscious bias impacts both men and women, and that increased access to flexibility for all could play an important role in shifting underlying preconceptions and expectations:

“I also think we need to allow more flexibility to males to have more balance in their lives and allow female partners in those situations to take a more front line career. Maybe there is unconscious bias in the industry.”

Whether Ms Wikramanayake poured the coffee in her more junior days is anyone’s guess, but as a rare female Chief Executive she will probably be asked before too long.