Boardroom Balance: Where Are All The Women?

Boardroom Balance: Where Are All The Women?

There’s ample evidence to suggest that while men and women start their careers as equals, fewer women advance up the ranks. At board level, women comprise less than 30% of directors and only seven FTSE 100 CEOs are women. We look at why this is bad for business, and how it can remedied.

“It’s not economically viable for a country to have 50% of its population undervalued and under-represented,” says Eluned Parrott, director of Parrott Communications and former shadow minister for the economy, science and transport in Wales.

It was when she had her children that Parrott noticed significant disparity between attitudes to men and women in the workplace. “When I went back to work, there were suddenly barriers; people didn’t treat me seriously because they thought my main priority was no longer on work. No one would ever dream of asking a father if their mind was still on the job; but everyone asks a mother.”

Practical ways forward

Two solutions Parrott points towards are shared parental leave (SPL) and the naming and shaming of companies who do not have women on their boards.

“Under the coalition government, SPL was legislated. What we now need is culture change. Many companies offer maternity leave that’s much better than paternity leave. There has to be full recognition of what fathers can do in the home, as well as mothers.”

“There was a realisation that an entirely middle-aged, white, male boardroom is no longer acceptable, because you’re not using the talent available but also you’re not representative of your customers”
Eluned Parrott, director, Parrott Communications

Far too few people take advantage of SPL, Parrott argues, “because the focus on it has been insufficient”. The figures are sobering: 54,000 women are believed to lose their jobs every year due to maternity discrimination and there are currently 2.6 million mothers not working in the UK. And at board level, a man starting his career at a FTSE 100 firm is four-and-a-half times more likely to reach the executive committee than a woman.

Second, the Davies report in 2011 led to a requirement for quoted companies to disclose their percentage of women in the boardroom; this has had a dramatic effect. “Suddenly, you could see FTSE 100 companies realising that they have been acting like dinosaurs,” says Parrott. “There was a realisation that an entirely middle-aged, white, male boardroom is no longer acceptable, not just because you’re not using all the talent that’s available to you but also because you’re not representative of your customers – how can you recognise their needs and wants if your boardroom is not diverse?”

Head starts for smaller companies

For start-ups and SMEs, there’s an opportunity for entrepreneurialism from women wanting to create flexible working practices to enable themselves to juggle career and family. Ade Onilude, founder and CEO of Women in Marketing, points to Digital Mums as an example of this. Addressing the fact that seven in 10 stay-at-home mothers would go back to work if there was more flexibility, but 64% have taken work below their skill level simply because it’s flexible, Digital Mums gives businesses access to freelance talent, while enabling women to work on their own terms around their families.

Smaller companies tend to be more agile, giving them an advantage when it comes to promoting based on talent. “Be more flexible in terms of looking for ways of being more diverse in a smaller business, without bureaucracy,” says Onilude. “Think about the culture and values that you want to hire; and look outside of your networks.”

Technology offers a significant helping hand – it’s no longer the case that people always have to work in an office between 9am and 5pm.

Once past discussions about flexible working practices and childcare, what else should companies do to help women reach senior positions?

“Organisations in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians”
McKinsey research

“Ask what initiatives are actively being implemented,” Onilude says. “Are women being actively sponsored in the business and championed by male senior leaders? Senior women also need to be more visible to other women in the business and make sure they share their story. This allows them to pave the way for others.”

One way to do so is via quotas, but these need to be handled carefully. “It’s a faster mechanism and easier to measure, but doesn’t take account of the internal culture of the organisation,” Onilude says. “Enforced quotas could lead to the assumption by some that the individual only got the job to fill the quota target. The culture of an organisation needs to be inclusive.”

People and profit

A mix of men and women in the boardroom makes for a more successful company. Organisations in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians, according to McKinsey research.

Creating a level playing field includes encouraging women to take credit where it is due. Consider Dove’s hugely successful Campaign for Real Beauty, which Daryl Fielding, now an adviser at The Marketing Academy, devised and executed when at Ogilvy & Mather. The effects of this are still benefiting the personal care products firm today, more than a decade after the campaign’s creation. Fielding told a Chartered Institute of Marketing discussion paper on Women in Marketing: “I felt I deserved the credit for leading the campaign, but I had to force myself to own it. This was uncomfortable because it challenged my values – and caused considerable stress at the time.”

Key tips for advancing female leaders

Culture change is as important as legislation or quotas. “It takes time for organisational behaviours to change, for biases to be realised and for women to be retained in roles, return from childcare responsibilities, or be promoted to senior leadership,” says Ade Onilude.

Many women are now establishing businesses as a way to achieve flexibility. “A huge number of start-ups are created by mothers when they’ve had a child and realise going back to 9 – 5 jobs won’t work for them,” says Eluned Parrott. “They want to drive an independent, creative life and that’s why we now see many female entrepreneurs taking the plunge.”

Companies with diverse workforces perform better financially. The McKinsey research suggests that “greater gender diversity on the senior-executive team corresponded to the highest performance uplift in our data set: for every 10% increase in gender diversity, EBIT [earnings before interest and tax] rose by 3.5%”.



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