We all know there’s been progress when it comes to female representation on boards, but let’s not pretend it cuts the mustard – there’s still a long way to go.
This is no sweeping generalisation. I’m able to say this from a very broad perspective; looking at the data we hold for our platform, from 6,000 members, only 18% of these are women looking for board positions.
Given they have the skills, experience and talent to bring to a board, why aren’t women going for them?
Women change the dynamic of a board. As well as bringing relevant skills, they also bring cognitive diversity, different brain structures and cultural expectations, offering a diverse approach to business and making for better decisions, performance and representation of the consumer base.
Currently, there is an inherent disconnect between the numbers of men and women applying for board positions.
As an executive head hunter for over 10 years I’ve spoken to hundreds of women at executive level and while it’s obvious they want the top jobs in just the same way as men do, the twist is that they are the ones that see diversity in the board room as a key driver to success and the board’s overall effectiveness.
The gist of the feedback I’m given is that women still have a perception of cronyism and boardroom politics at this level. So we must ask ourselves is ‘is this simply a perception or a reality?’
If it’s real, it has to change. Which business doesn’t want to make more informed decisions, benefit from more astute risk management or receive recommendations from a different perspective?
Of course, things are improving. In the UK, women account for 23.5% of board members, beating Australia (20%), the EU (17.5%) and the US (17%), but with females dropping out of work at middle management levels – despite having the skills and experience to deliver – the talent pool becomes smaller and herein the problem lies. Quite simply, we lack a bigger, more diverse pool of senior women candidates.
And while this can be explained to some extent, that’s not to say it is okay or that it should remain that way.
Middle management is the key drop out point for women in business, during which numbers of females fall from 40 to 15 per cent. It’s no wonder there’s only a small percentage of women in senior roles and even less so at board level.
Women enter the workforce in equal numbers to men, but many leave to have a family and don’t come back. Among those that do return to work, many will take part time roles, below their skill level in order to have the flexibility they need to look after their family. If they find their organisation doesn’t support flexible working, they may even drop out. It is feasible for them to continue with international travel or work longer hours if they don’t have support at home?
It leaves fewer women in senior roles and even fewer who feel they have the confidence, experience and skills to become board members. So this is an issue that must be addressed if we are to make progress.
In addition to this, the business environment has traditionally been very much male dominated. Intermediaries as well as boards have also tended be male dominated, favouring male candidates in the board application process.
Hopefully disintermediation of online recruitment platforms, which remove the middle man (interestingly even this phrase has a gender bias), will start to make a positive impact on redressing the balance between male and female applicants, and this can only be great news for ambitious women.
Furthermore, while the rising state pension age has much negativity surrounding it, there is also the possibility that it could bring some positive change. Official figures have revealed more older women are being encouraged into work. According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of working women between 50 to 64 jumped 3.1 per cent to 3.9million while women aged 65 grew by 5.3 per cent in a year to 482,000. Could this end up reflecting on female representation on boards in the future – only time will tell.
There have been improvements - that’s for sure; there are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100 and from our perspective, we’re certainly seeing an increase in women in our network, but there’s still some way to go. Let’s hope 2016 can be a year of more rapid and effective change.
Women bring a depth and variety of innovative ideas, forward thinking and solutions to the challenges businesses face. Let’s see more of them weaving diversity into their business strategies, making it business critical – not to meet quotas but because it makes sense from a performance and financial perspective.
Put quite simply - failure to do so could leave your business behind.
By Matthew Roberts, CEO of NonExecutiveDirectors.com