By Helen Croft, The Results Centre

It’s easy to make the right noises when discussing the issue of gender imbalance at senior levels of commerce and industry, but the key question is what are we doing about it? The publication of the 2011 Women on Boards review, with the recommendation that FTSE 100 boards should comprise at least 25% women by 2015 was a step in the right direction, but there is still much more to be done to close the gender gap.

First the good news. The number of women directors on FTSE 100 boards has risen from 15% in 2011 to just below 23% in September 2014, according to the Professional Boards Forum BoardWatch. Denise Wilson, CEO of the Women on Boards group also believes that the UK has made significant strides since the publication of the original report, saying "Along with Australia, we are two countries in the world that has made really great progress – we just need to keep it up."

The flip side of these encouraging signs is the fact that Britain achieved a dismal ranking in the 2014 Global Gender Gap survey carried out by the World Economic Forum. Not only did we fail to make the top 20, the UK’s position actually slipped eight places to 26th, behind countries such as Nicaragua, Burundi and Rwanda.

A question of attitude

It’s no surprise that the Nordic countries performed particularly well with Iceland, Finland and Norway in the top three. Norway in particular is notable for being the first country to implement gender quotas of 40% female representation in 2008. A recent debate hosted by the Norwegian-British Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with the Norwegian Embassy and Innovation Norway weighed up the evidence about the success of the system in their home country. Those present (including Denise Wilson), concluded that operational performance had been unaffected by the enforcement of quotas, whilst positives included an extended talent pool and greater cultural diversity.

However, it’s important to point out that it’s unlikely that the UK would be able to replicate Norway’s success as the quota initiative came upon the back of several decades of social change. Ultimately, there are fundamental difference in how the Nordic and British societies think about gender and family. Those attitudes are crucial to the success of initiatives such as quotas, and can’t be changed overnight.

Whichever stance you take, the quota debate can sometimes obscure the key issues and businesses need to evaluate their own contribution to the equality issue.

When good intentions fail

Whilst it’s acknowledged that the sexes think and behave differently, the workplace is often predicated on a male behaviour model, automatically placing women at a disadvantage. One of the recurring problems that I encounter when working with female executives is the tendency of some employers to create less demanding roles for women with families to return to. Whilst this may be done with the best of intentions, it rarely works in practice as the women working in these downgraded positions often become bored and frustrated by roles below their capabilities. It also fails to provide the experiences necessary for career advancement in line with their potential.

In fact, it seems that more and more successful women at the peak of their careers are leaving these roles because they no longer feel engaged or challenged by what they are doing. In my experience, both men and women are questioning the balance in their lives, replacing the question “what do I want to achieve in my career” with “what kind of life do I want to have?”
Measures such offering flexible working, job shares, home working and results based contracts are all options that organisations should consider. However, for real change to be effected there must be a fundamental shift in mind set. Whilst we may not be ready for Norway’s quota solution, moving closer to their attitudes to women, family and the workplace would be no bad thing.