Balancing the board: change requires new thinking

Gender diversity on boards is not a new debate. Even so, research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) suggests real sea change is still lacking in the FTSE 350. Its recommendations are helpful starting points, but effective implementation will require some corporate soul-searching. Three of the more challenging suggestions for improving the talent pipeline are:

Widen the definition of ‘suitably qualified’

Some companies remain reluctant to consider candidates from academia, the professions and the not-for-profit and public sectors. One worry is that appointees will lack requisite skills, such as financial and shareholder relations experience. Doubts about cultural fit have also been raised.

Despite these reservations, the EHRC revealed highly positive feedback from companies that had appointed women from outside the FTSE 350. Suitability, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

A narrow definition precludes the very benefits that diversity brings: alternative perspectives, additional insight and the avoidance of ‘group think’. Companies with the foresight to appreciate a broader range of backgrounds will access a greater talent pool.

Understand positive action

‘Positive action’ includes activities outside the recruitment and promotion process aimed at helping under-represented groups compete equally on merit with others. The EHRC recommends training, development and leadership programmes, as well as mentoring and networking opportunities.

The danger is that such initiatives sometimes just encourage women to imitate a male-dominated status quo. The focus must be on recognising and enhancing each individual’s strengths and personality traits, not shoehorning them into leadership stereotypes.

Moreover, theoretical training is no substitute for actual opportunity. Positive action should build a portfolio of practical experience that women can point to when competing for increased responsibility. Unfortunately, in the EHRC’s study ‘just one company had an initiative to develop women’s operational experience so that it was more equivalent to their male peers’.

Create an attractive culture

Easier said than done, but the EHRC’s research highlights the importance of flexibility – both in daily working patterns and over a career lifecycle. The report said: ‘All companies encouraged women to apply for internal promotions, but companies with over 25% or 1-24% women on their boards were more likely than companies with no women on their boards to offer flexible working (79%, 74% and 54% respectively) or flexible career paths (53%, 43% and 31% respectively).’

A link is often drawn between women and flexibility because of the perception of women as primary carers. However, defining care as a female issue adds to the problem – perpetuating biased assumptions about the ability of women to carry out demanding workplace roles.

Companies committed to flexible working for all facilitate constructive conversations about time management between those who aspire to share caring responsibilities and balance other life goals with work – irrespective of gender. The evidence suggests that these are the organisations retaining senior women.

Time to rethink?

Embracing these recommendations will require shifts in culture, attitudes and expectations. Alongside change to processes, companies may need to redefine their very sense of who they are as a business and an employer – a more fundamental question altogether.

Liz Bradley is Corporate Policy Manager at ICSA

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