Not seen. Not heard. Women in the boardroom - Business Works
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Not seen. Not heard. Women in the boardroom

Sharon Glancy, Founder, Women 1st On International Women's Day, Sharon Glancy, Founder of Women 1st, discusses how companies can benefit significantly by identifying female talent within their teams and ensuring that they are given support and encouragement to reach senior levels.

The IMF’s (International Monetary Fund) recent announcement that it will cut the UK’s growth forecast shows that we are still experiencing turbulence from one of the worst economic downturns in living memory. At this time, forward-looking business leaders will be looking at ways to emerge from the downturn stronger.

Just as the nation’s workforce will help drive the economic recovery a company’s workforce can help drive business. So, given the scale of the economic challenge, it is more important than ever to ensure that we make the most of the skills and talent of the entire workforce. However, despite the fact that female economic empowerment was one of the greatest breakthroughs of the 20th century, equal representation at company board level has been almost impossible to reach.

17.3% of director-level positions in FTSE 100 companies are held by women (BoardWatch). That’s an increase of 4.8% from last year, when Lord Davies of Abersoch released his report, Women on Boards. Without resorting to legislation, Lord Davies has set a target of 25% which, he says, must be reached by 2015. Some would argue that the UK has made ‘record’ progress. Others would argue that progress has been painfully slow. It’s no wonder, then, that a number of decision makers are calling for quotas to guarantee the number of women in boardrooms.

Do businesses really need a balanced boardroom?

In a nutshell, diversity makes commercial sense. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that businesses perform better as the diversity of their leadership team grows. A recent report from the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that companies with female board members outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26% worldwide, over a period of six years.

Another report from Forbes Insight found that diversity also encourages creativity and innovation. If an organisation’s senior management is made up of one group alone, then their expertise, opinions and skillsets will be similar. A more diverse senior management team can bring fresh thinking, a broader range of skills and a perspective that represents its entire customer base.

This is especially important when it’s estimated that women make over 80% of consumer purchasing decisions such as deciding which utility supplier to use, what car to buy, where to holiday and where to eat. Having women in decision-making positions can help businesses develop a unique understanding of their largest consumer market.

Why the lack of women?

There are a number of factors that have made it difficult for women to take up senior positions - one of which is that the more senior the post, the more subjective the selection process becomes. A large number of senior appointments are said to be made behind closed doors and, often, positions are not even advertised as they are recruited through networks - which suggests that an "old-boys’ network" could still exist in many organisations.

As part of a global study, the World Economic Forum (WEF) identified a number of barriers to women reaching senior leadership positions. Unsurprisingly, a masculine corporate culture was identified as the key barrier. Other factors included a lack of role models, mentoring, opportunities for work experience and flexible working arrangements. The WEF’s findings mirror a similar study conducted by Women 1st, an initiative launched by sector skills council People 1st in 2009 to help address the gender imbalance in the hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism industries.

Lessons can be learnt from the UK’s hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism sector

The hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism sector is one of the nation’s largest employers – accounting for one in 14 jobs. Whilst 60% of the workforce is female, only six percent of board level director positions are held by women. In fact, it’s estimated that 310,000 female workers leave the industry each year, costing businesses £2.8 billion in replacement recruitment and initial training. In passenger transport, women make up just 22% of the entire workforce.

When Women 1st delved into the reasons why women were not progressing to senior positions, it found that, along with a lack of flexible and part-time working arrangements, there was gender-bias within recruitment processes, exclusion from business networks and a lack of visible women in senior positions. Women also lacked suitable career training, role models and mentoring opportunities. The reasons were almost identical to the problems identified by the WEF.

If businesses and governments want to drive diversity and break the status quo, especially in light of the current economic downturn, what steps can they take? Is it best to introduce a legal quota system to encourage positive discrimination, or encourage industry to find its own solutions?

Mind the gap and action it

It is easy to find justification for positive discrimination. Yes, it might help tackle the problem of recruitment via the ‘old boys’ network’, but does it really help to develop women’s skills and cultivate a sustainable talent pool?

At this moment in time, companies need the best set of skills from the most talented candidates who suit the job. Instead of positive discrimination, governments and organisations need to look at the steps needed to help both men and women reach their career aspirations, by providing the right training and development.

If businesses are serious about helping women reach the highest levels of their business, driving growth and injecting fresh thinking, organisations need to go beyond just offering flexible working arrangements. There are three key areas businesses and HR professionals need to address:

  • Providing Continuous Professional Development (CPD) training
  • Providing mentoring opportunities
  • Tracking their progress through the organisation.

Continuous Professional Development

CPD is described as a combination of approaches, ideas and techniques that help to manage an individual’s own learning and growth. Given the lack of training and development some women receive at their workplace, Women 1st found that some female employees experience a lack of self-confidence, poor communication skills and low self-awareness.

It is essential for businesses to provide training and CPD plans that help both men and women build on their existing skills and develop new ones as they progress. As part of any CPD programme, it is also important for employees to be given the opportunity to network with their peers. Networking can play a critical role when it comes to building business relationships but women, in particular, can find these types of events intimidating. It is never easy breaking into a ‘clique’, male or female, if you are not familiar with the crowd – especially if you are one of only a few women in the room, making you stand out a mile. It is paramount to provide female staff with the training to help them maximise networking events.

Providing mentors

Mentoring can play a crucial role in helping someone take their career to the next level. However, it is important for the mentors and mentees to be carefully matched. Factors like what industry they work in, age and specific shared interests should be taken into consideration. Internal mentors can be very beneficial for those looking for immediate guidance and career support within their organisation, but feedback shows that having an external mentor can be better for longer-term career development as they often have a different or wider industry perspective to draw on.

Tracking progress

Once female managers receive appropriate training and mentoring, career progression often follows. It’s important for HR teams to meet with their female staff regularly, obtain feedback on the training and track their progress in the organisation. In fact, this ability to track the results of the training programmes available through Women 1st, and the views of women and their managers, helped to refine the programmes. Having a structure in place that tracks career progression and supports women in dealing with any obstacles or challenges is essential.

The keys to the boardroom

While governments can play a role in increasing the number of women in senior positions and on boards, Women 1st is against such quotas. A job vacancy should be fulfilled on skills and merit alone - gender should not play a role. Ultimately, it is up to the organisation to ensure that the working environment it creates fosters the best talent – male and female.

Companies can benefit significantly by identifying female talent within their teams and ensuring that they are given support and encouragement to reach senior levels. Research has already shown that there is a positive link between gender diversity on top leadership teams and a company’s financial results. Now, it is more important than ever before to make the most of one of the richest resources available to HR directors — the skills and talent of their female staff.

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