The Gender Dilemma

In 2018, the number of women on FTSE boards reached 30 per cent for the first time. At a glance, this headline suggests a positive sign of progress – and it is, especially compared to the pitiful 12.5 per cent recorded in 2011.

However, while it’s clear that headway has been made in creating an equal playing field at the top of UK businesses, it seems the national push for gender diversity on corporate boards has somewhat stalled and in some cases reversed in the last few years.

The story so far

According to analysis from Cranfield University, as part of its 20th FTSE Women on Boards Report, there has been a sharp drop in the number of women occupying chief executive (CEO), chief financial officer (CFO) or other executive roles on FTSE 250 boards, and static numbers at FTSE 100 companies.

While the gender balance on corporate boards has undoubtedly undergone a seismic shift in the last decade, not enough is being done to sustain momentum and increase the number of women in senior leadership roles. In the latest Hampton-Alexander review, researchers revealed some of the shocking reasons that chairs and CEOs had given for the recent slump in progress:

“Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?” one respondent said. “We have one woman already on the board, so we’re done – it’s someone else’s turn,” was the reason cited by another. A CEO who wished to remain anonymous even claimed the current talent pool lacked women with the “right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board” while another gave the excuse that female employees simply wouldn’t fit in with the board environment and that most do not even want the “hassle” that comes with a senior role.

These statements expose an incredibly worrying attitude among business leaders; one that must be addressed without delay if we are to build on the foundations we have laid for gender equality on British boards. The question is, where have they come from? It is, after all, no secret that diverse and women-friendly workplaces perform better over their male-only counterparts.

Uncovering the root cause

While most leaders recognise that building a company which promotes equal opportunity is the right thing to do, many still do not appreciate the tangible, bottom-line benefits that a gender-diverse leadership team can bring. Perhaps the message has, so far, been too focused on hitting targets such as the goal set by the Hampton Alexander review of women holding 33% of board positions on FTSE companies by 2020.

Instead of working to remove the systemic barriers that prevent women from reaching the top, it seems male chairs and CEOs are more concerned with quotas than they are with addressing the root cause of the problem – of which there are many: a lack of encouragement, unconscious bias and the absence of role models to name but a few. Behavioural change can’t happen overnight, but it’s by no means a done deal – setting clear goals centred around inclusion and culture is just the first step in ensuring gender balance at board level.

Shifting the gears

Switching your focus from hitting quotas to fostering an inclusive culture will require an acknowledgement that structural bias and social justice affects women as people; it will take a collective effort from the board to recognise the deep-rooted attitudes and behavioural barriers that prevent female employees from rising to the top.

First and foremost, business leaders must champion the cause and make inclusion a key priority and a company value. Investing in unconscious bias training to raise awareness of underlying behaviours is a must, while linking D&I incentives with pay has further proven constructive for a growing number of corporate boards.

Ultimately, your aim as a chair or CEO should be to foster an environment in which all talent can flourish, no matter their gender, cultural background or belief-system: part of that is about identifying and challenging your own preconceptions, but leaders must further make an effort to put in place the support systems needed to drive organisational change. Rather than focusing solely on board composition, they must recognise the importance of nurturing a pipeline to ensure women are working their way up to the board.

While progress may have stalled in recent years, increased focus on diversity has already meant there are more women on boards than ever before. However, if we are to achieve true gender parity at the top, we must centre our targets on balancing the pipeline through inclusive policies and practices. Only once the gears have shifted throughout an organisation can it expect to attract female candidates to leadership roles.

By Mar Llados, Consultant

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Mar Llados