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Drive for more women in boardroom has stalled

Despite the ‘compelling” business case for having more women on company boards the move towards gender equality in the boardroom has stalled.

Our Vital Topics panel debate on ‘Diversity at the top’ heard that there remained a complex and often contradictory array of reasons as to why more women did not hold senior management positions. For instance there are still only seven female CEOs in the FTSE 100 today.

Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, said more diverse management teams achieved a number of things. “They produce better business results, give a significant boost to productivity, and outperform competitors. They also lead to better cultures within business and superior employee engagement, while de-risking decision-making.”

Yes despite these compelling reasons she said the drive to get more women in the boardroom was stuck. “We have a glass pyramid where women simply drop off.”

She said often there were cultural reasons. “Women get to a certain point within a business, look up and do not like what they see. They think to themselves ‘this does not fit with my life’ and they opt out. Their ambition also decreases as they gradually feel less supported by the business.”

Working hours

Jill Rubery, Professor of Comparative Employment Systems at Alliance MBS, echoed the point, saying that the “horrendous issue” of working hours put many women off more senior management positions. “What does part-time even mean when full-time hours are so long? There is also the issue of lack of second chances. It can be very difficult for women to get back into full-time working and there is a huge amount of age discrimination. If a woman back pedals for a while or has not ‘made it’ by 40 she can be written off. This is a big issue.”

Prof Rubery said introducing quotas of women on boards may be necessary in the short-term to help change cultures. But Sally Penni, a barrister at Kenworthy’s Chambers in Manchester, was against quotas in the private sector. “I do not want to sit in a boardroom on a token basis as a black woman. If you had a 50% quota nothing will change. It is the culture that matters. Do all women want to get to the top of business? Well, they would at least like the option of getting there.”

Francke said recently introduced gender pay reporting legislation, whereby employers with 250 or more staff now have to publish statutory calculations every year showing the pay gap between their male and female employees, was a step in the right direction. “I actually have a lot of time for this as a macro level policy. At the micro level, companies that do not do anything about gender diversity will suffer reputational damage. The way forward to address these wider issues is transparency and targets, using the power of public opinion.”

Accidental managers

She added that engaging middle-tier male managers to change their behaviours was another key element. “It is about teaching people how to inspire trust. One of the issues we have today is of the ‘accidental’ male manager. We need to train these managers to be transparent, admit mistakes, share thinking, be visible, and have conversations with the people they manage. It is about improving these softer skills.”

Andrew Saunders, Deputy Editor of Management Today, agreed. “There can be an unconscious bias at the top of business. When it comes to the crunch business leaders will use their instincts to build teams that simply look like successful teams. The system can be perpetuated.”

The debate was chaired by best-selling author and journalist Rachel Bridge.