Women On Boards: Progress Made And Progress Needed

 Posted by Jean      

This week sees the launch of two important documents relating to the number of professional women on boards.

The first of these is the Female FTSE Board Report 2013, produced by Cranfield University's School of Management, which has been charting the number of female executive directors on company boards with annual reports since 1999.

Lord Davies of Abersoch, has also published his second annual progress report on women on boards on behalf of the Government.

In both reports we see good news for professional women in organisations.

Since 2010, the percentage of non-executive director positions that are filled by women has increased by 6.2%, from 15.6% to 21.8%. Lord Davies commented on the improvement, stating:

"The onus was firmly placed on business to bring about this necessary change, and I am pleased to say that evidence clearly shows that they have, and are, stepping up and responding."

However, amidst the general positivity, there is an important point to be noted: in the same period - from 2010 to 2013 - the number of female executive directors has risen by only 0.6%, from 5.5% to only 6.1%.

In companies in the FTSE 250, the current percentage is even lower, with a disappointing 5.4% of executive directorships being held by women. More shocking still: since 1999, the number of female executive directors in the FTSE 100 has actually fallen from 645 to 307.

As an organisation consultant who works with companies that are keen to improve their internal gender balance, I am dismayed by these figures, which are a clear indication that further action is needed urgently if we are serious about improving the situation for women at work. This action needs to be multi-faceted, targeting organisational culture and supporting individual women as they progress within organisations.

Perhaps surprisingly, I agree with Louisa Peacock (who tweets under the handle of @LouisaPeacock) in her article in the Telegraph on 10th April that quotas are not the answer.

There is a good reason for this: while most organisations recruit equal numbers of men and women, women start to fall out of the talent pipeline in many organisations in their early 20s. Rather than subscribing to a simple numbers game, I believe we need to fix this leaking pipeline in order to address the lack of numbers of women at the top. This means focusing on all levels of the organisation to determine where companies are going wrong.

The key to creating a more inclusive environment within an organisation is simply a firm commitment to organisational change. Companies need to be more proactive in helping women and minority groups to flourish.

Gender diversity reviews; gender strategies; sponsorship programmes for women and direct support for women in the talent pipeline from very early on in their careers: all of these things would help to stem the flow.

Organisations need to explore where unconscious bias is playing a part. They need to look at creative ways of supporting flexible working, and identify ways for women to stay in the pipeline at times when they may need to leave the office at a reasonable hour!

We also need to encourage professional women to find ways of ensuring they get the relevant experience needed to get to the top. This includes staying in client-facing or fee-earning roles wherever possible, and organisations will need to be creative in enabling women to do this and still work flexibly.

Finally, it is imperative that we support the most senior women more intensively. I can only imagine that, until we achieve the necessary 30% mark when it comes to women on executive teams, it must be lonely at the top!


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