Gender Equality in the Boardroom?

24 February 2011

This week’s Institute of Leadership and Management report on ‘Ambition and Gender at work’ and Lord Davies independent review of Women on Boards, have once again highlighted the perennial problem of diversity in the workplace. They have also promoted a consensus-driven rather than radical approach to tackling this. But perhaps it is baby steps rather than a handbag and killer-heels solution that will be the best path to progress in the long run.

The ILM found that most managers surveyed (47% of women and 24% of men) are against positive action quotas for women. I am inclined to agree. In the same way that positive discrimination may not be the right solution to the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities on most Boards and in most workforces, it is surely more desirable that women make it to the boardroom on merit , talent and ability, i.e. because they truly deserve to be there, rather than because a board needs to meet arbitrary targets.

Lord Davies is proposing that headhunters and shareholders sign up to a code of conduct promoting transparency during recruitment and that companies set voluntary targets to which stakeholders (customers, media, investors) should hold them accountable in terms of female representation at board and senior management level. Bravo!

However what this week’s reports touched upon but fail to adequately address, is a further crucial issue. Not only do we see a lack of women at the top, but of those women who do make it, only a very small percentage will be mothers. We know that fewer women mid-career aspire to “lead” because of the difficulties of juggling a high flying career and family commitments. That’s why many of them set up their own businesses. But how can employers do more to encourage women in their careers post-maternity leave and ensure that they do not lose out on this highly trained pool of talent when they are in their prime?

By giving working mothers mentors says the ILM. Continuing to promote and recognize women after they have had babies is important. The current economic climate should not be used as an excuse for weeding out women of childbearing age or who may want flexible working arrangements. It is still the brave who are prepared to litigate when they suffer injustice on the grounds of maternity related reasons for fear of never working in the City again, but we have seen various recent examples – former Credit Suisse and Sky employees spring to mind. And now, thanks to Lord Davies, those who do sue in the future may find the reputational embarrassment factor for employers an increasingly powerful tool.

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