If you look at a corporate boardroom today compared to a few years ago, I’m sure in most instances you’d see a huge difference in the number of women sitting around the table.
Yes, we’ve come a long way, and yes, we’ve achieved a level of women in C-level positions that was previously unthinkable, but the issues remain: we’ve done very little to solve the root causes of our board diversity problems. Why is this the case? And more importantly, what can we do about it? There has been hugely improved awareness when it comes to gender equality at boardroom level.
Many more companies realise that a diverse board brings many benefits, such as improved decision making, a broader base of perspectives to inform business strategy and a lower tendency to take unnecessary risks. Indeed, at Stott and May we regularly receive directives from clients that indicate a strong preference towards women for senior positions. But despite these efforts, recent news reveals that most of the UK’s largest listed companies have missed their target of having 25 percent of board positions filled by women, set by Lord Davies’ report in 2011.
Perhaps it’s time, then, for us to accept that superficial changes aren’t working. Awareness of a problem is one thing, but solving that problem requires deeper, cultural changes that could take a long time – but a longer time if we continue to bury our heads in the sand and ignore our own prejudices. Equality recruitment drives and edicts from the government are not the answer to the problems we face.
Let’s look at the financial services sector, where gender equality is still extremely poor. The attitudes of many boards towards women can at times be shocking. The example of Senator Elizabeth Warren in the U.S. is an enlightening one: her appointment as director of America’s new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was blocked by the industry because it feared she would fill the role too effectively. A man was named as director instead. Some modern industries fare better when it comes to employing women in senior positions, but even their approach is far from perfect.
So why has this problem come about? Because businesses haven’t been effective at hiring women at graduate and junior levels for a very long time. After all, the top of a business is influenced by the bottom, and equality can only be driven at the most senior levels if it exists throughout the business. It’s a challenge to find women who are able to rise through an organisation’s ranks to the highest level because it often hasn’t been done in that business before. Until we start joining up our thinking between hiring female graduates new to the workforce and women at board level, we won’t see any real improvement in gender equality – we’ll just continue to paper over the cracks.
A great example of this can be seen in football clubs. The most successful teams dedicate a lot of time and resources to training their youth squads and nurturing young talent – not just focusing on buying in top players (think class of ‘92 at Manchester United). Businesses should adopt this approach when hiring new female talent. Instead of hiring female graduates simply in the context of the role they’ve applied for, businesses must start to focus on hiring women who, with training and experience, have the ability to become their future leaders.
A key part of developing talent organically within a business is offering equal pay. Without equal pay, businesses simply won’t attract the top talent needed to create boards that will ensure their bright futures. Currently in the U.S., the average woman earns 77 per cent of the average man’s earnings. Given statistics like these, it’s not surprising that many women drop off or fail to climb the career ladder to board level.
The women who will be our future board members are already in the workforce. We owe it to them and to the continued success of our businesses to put processes in place now that will encourage and support female talent from the moment women enter the workplace. We can’t afford to bury our heads in the sand and rely on government quotas any longer – it’s our responsibility as businesses to change our cultures for the better.