June 27th saw the midway report of the government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review, which revealed stuttering progress towards the target of achieving 33% representation of women on FTSE 350 executive boards by 2020.

According to latest data, FTSE 100 companies are on track, with 29% of board positions now held by women – up from 12.5% in 2011. On the other hand, FTSE 350 companies are lagging behind – the number of women on boards has risen to 25.5% yet to reach their 33% target, around 40% of all appointments will need to go to women in the next two years.

The prospect of falling short of hitting the Hampton-Alexander targets should be ringing alarm bells in board rooms across the country.

Why should increasing the number of women on boards be a business priority?

According to McKinsey, equal representation of men and women in the workplace could add £150bn to the UK economy in the next 10 years. Not only is diversity good for the economy, it’s also good for business – improving financial performance, employee engagement, and decision making.

If a company wants to be successful - which we can only presume every company does – then building and nurturing their talent pipeline should be their number-one priority. Diverse boards are key to achieving gender balance throughout a business and sets the example from the top down.

Improving gender balance in the executive pipeline isn’t just about promoting women, it’s about boosting organisations’ leadership capability and performance - diversity delivers results.

Where does the issue stem from?

As research by the Chartered Management Institute shows, too many women are stuck in what we call ‘the glass pyramid’. Across all organisations, women hold the majority of junior managerial roles, (66%) but slip off the higher up the ranks you go – women hold just 25% of the top roles.

The lack of women in senior roles, in my opinion, can be boiled down to two key reasons:

First is culture. At the organisations where women are paid and promoted less than men are workplace cultures where 80% of women have seen inappropriate behaviours or remarks based on gender. The same number have been prevented from expressing their views at work - more commonly called ‘manterrupting’.

These are what we call the ‘broken windows’ behaviours - seemingly small symptoms of incivility towards women in workplaces that open up the possibility of more serious violations. When small infractions remain unchallenged or invisible, it paves the way for tolerating more serious transgressions, such as sexual harassment, and lack of leadership opportunities. Not only are they tolerated, but they are also frequently expected. And too often met with a wall of silence.

The second barrier for women’s progression is a lack of return-to-work programmes and good maternity leave processes. Middle management is typically the time when women have a break in their careers to start a family. Organisations need to ensure they have robust return-to-work programmes in place for all new parents.

Earlier this week the BBC published their pay figures for their presenters, these stats show that among the top 20 best paid presenters, only two are women. 

Ann Francke, CEO, Chartered Management Institute, said

"We know that women across the UK are facing a glass pyramid when it comes to their career progression. Only 26% of top jobs are held by women nationally. So when women at the BBC, at the top of their professional game, are still subjected to the humiliation of unequal pay, we really do have a major problem.

"We're pleased to see that the gap is narrowing, but BBC, as the national broadcaster, needs to do better, faster. If women see that they when they get to the top, they'll be treated unfairly, it’s a massive disincentive."

What can be done to get more women onto boards?

Employers need to use the information they have from the gender pay gap reporting regulations and identify where the holes are in their management pipeline. This means working with HR to look at how they nurture and develop the talent they’ve got already and set measurable and accountable targets – after all, what gets measured gets managed.

We need to engage men. After all, it’s a male-dominated world. Most men in senior positions actually have gender diversity on their agenda – their wives, daughters, nieces… are coming into the workplace and they want them to have a fair opportunity and a good career. Men in senior roles need to act as advocates for gender diversity, sponsor female talent and be role models for shared parental responsibility.

Lastly, we need role models and these role models need to be showcased. More and more men are saying they would like to take responsibility for raising their children (63% according to research from My Family Care and The Women’s Business Council) but actually they find they’re in a working environment where the culture doesn’t welcome that. This has led to just 1% of new fathers applying for shared parental leave.

Companies need to create cultures where men can request and receive shared parental leave, and be able to openly talk about it. This will help more women to progress through the pipeline into senior positions.

Roll on 2020

The fact that organisations are now talking about gender diversity and it being a key agenda on boards for most chairmen is a phenomenal leap in the right direction. That noise needs to continue and leaders must embrace it.

To thrive in business and compete effectively, having the best people in your company is key. You can’t ignore 50% of the working population based on gender. We’ve still got a long way to go before we achieve true gender diversity in management but finally we’re heading in the right direction.

Heather Melville OBE, chair of the Chartered Management Institute’s CMI Women Network

About CMI Women: They are at the forefront of advocating gender balance through thought leadership, networking events and campaigns to highlight the missing middle of women in management. Get involved with the CMI Women campaign, or share your guidance on gender parity with CMI’s Blueprint for Balance.

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