By Sir Roger Carr, CBI president

Ensuring women take their rightful place at senior levels in British business is a war of attrition made up of many battles.

And a battle is so often at its greatest risk when it is almost won. That’s when generals start to relax; when troops scent victory and contemplate the rewards. The case has been clear throughout: merit first, gender is added value.

Companies that are more diverse in their leadership teams are more innovative, have better governance, and better reflect their customer base. Improved dynamics always deliver better business outcomes from British boardrooms.

We’ve had success both in the FTSE 100 and the FTSE 250 with female directorships, predominantly non-executive, at 17 and 13 per cent respectively as at March of this year.

But worryingly, the pace of appointment at all levels has slackened in the past six months and the number of female executive appointments remains disappointingly low.

And while the achievements to date have been the ammunition we needed to fight off the EU desire for quotas, any evidence of slippage will fuel the arguments of those that consider regulation and legislation to be the only solution.

We must not let this happen. It is demeaning for women, demoralising in boardrooms and, ultimately, damaging for business. Quotas drive numbers but they don’t change culture.

So the message today is clear. If we lose focus and slacken the pace, domestic choice will eventually be replaced by European enforcement.

Women seeking appointment should be encouraged by the progress to date, but should remain tenacious in pursuit of their goal.

Head hunters need to work harder and dig deeper to find the required talent, rather than parading familiar faces from the same old places, or their assignments will dwindle. Only those that do the digging will be much in demand.

And executives’ actions must speak louder than words. Platitudes, promises and good intentions are not enough if we in industry are to propel women to their rightful place, not just in boardrooms, but in executive roles at all levels in business.

Business leaders must roll up their sleeves and redouble their efforts to improve recruitment, mentoring and succession planning.

Work must be both female and family friendly. Ways and means must be found to liberate the talent that is latent in so many women but limited by domestic responsibilities and inflexible working practices.

It takes board willpower to trigger the commitment, shareholder focus and management action to change the culture and the rules.

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