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Fighting for equality: Women and boards

Georgina Fuller

Diverse businesspeople

With the push for equality, there are often equal numbers of men and women at entry-level but the number of women at board-level is still shockingly low, reports Georgina Fuller

The days of company boards being predominantly male, pale and stale are over. At least, that’s what forward-thinking employers want us to believe. Businesses these days are usually very keen to point out how ‘progressive’ they are when it comes to equal opportunities but, although there are often equal numbers of men and women at entry-level, the number of women at board-level is still shockingly low. Women accounted for just 18.7% of FTSE 100 directors in 2012, according to recent figures by the Professional Boards Forum BoardWatch.  

A new report by Ernst & Young consultancy has also highlighted the need for a fresh approach when it comes to recruiting women for board-level roles. The Time for Change: Recruiting for Europe’s Boardrooms report, published in October, is based on interviews with European business leaders, board members and headhunters. It offers five practical steps to improve boardroom recruitment, including: looking for non-executive directors with more varied backgrounds, using headhunters more efficiently, broadening selection criteria, making a more transparent succession plan and collaborating with other businesses to provide support for all non-executive directors.

Allyson Zimmermann, senior director at Catalyst consultancy, says that employers are finally starting to understand the business case for diversity. “Attracting female talent and increasing the number of women on boards is not only crucial, but is a business imperative if they want to remain competitive in today’s global workplace,” she notes. “Study after study, including Catalyst’s own, show the value of women in leadership.  Companies with more women in leadership (corporate board directors and corporate officers), on average, financially outperform those with fewer women.”

Reflecting the customer and client base is also vital when it comes to understanding your target market, Sam Jones, the (male) CEO of Gendergap, points out. “If your client base and target market are 60-year-old white men, then it’s smart to have a board composed of 60-year-old white men. But most organisations have a more diverse group of prospects and customers – and must have a board that represents this in order to outperform their competitors.”

Companies are also starting to realise that they have to become more adaptable to survive, especially in light of the recession. Claire Williams, director at Inclusive Employers consultancy, explains. “It makes no business sense whatsoever to limit the professional expertise, experience and skill available to the board. Diversity by definition brings difference - different ways of thinking, different solutions to problems, different ways of achieving objectives. Businesses need to be agile and flexible in order to survive and diverse boards reduce the risk of "group think" dominating.”

Ultimately, however, it’s often still the mother who has primary childcare responsibilities and who the school calls if their child is unwell. So providing working mothers with enough support to juggle the demanding conflicts of work and family is essential in ensuring their success throughout their careers.  Emma Bartlett, employment lawyer and partner at Speechly Bircham City law firm, is a good case in point. “In law, there are usually more female trainees taken on than male ones. That ratio continues through to middle and senior post-qualification level, but then starts to wane at senior level,” she notes. “As society changes, I would predict a natural rise in this ratio as family roles have moved away from women having primary childcare responsibilities. This alone will not be sufficient to see the ratio improve sufficiently though.”

Encouragingly, Bartlett’s own experience has been resoundingly positive. “I’ve felt confident in being able to address my business needs around flexible working.  And as a partner in a law firm, I understand that the needs of the business need to be addressed and taken seriously. I could not have done what I have without having senior support to make it work though. I rely on this much less now, but it was essential in the first few years of balancing my increasing responsibilities at home with work.”

Lord Davies, the Minister for Women, has pledged to increase the number of female board directors to at least 25% by 2015. But Bartlett is not convinced this will make a difference in the immediate future. “The starting ratio of men to women at board level is, perhaps, so low that boards will need to get over the 25% hurdle before real progress will be made.  It’s one thing to say or recognise that the ratio needs to be improved, and another to actually put in place measures to deliver improvement.”

Zimmermann agrees: “Change is happening, although it may feel a bit slow at times. It’s not just about ‘doing the right thing’ – it’s essential to the success of the organisation.”


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