BLP's Lisa Mayhew writes for The Guardian on the challenge to get women in the boardroom.
The question of targets and quotas for women on boards has been brought to the forefront by Lord Davies' recent call for businesses to increase the number of female non-executive directors to 50%. His efforts have sharpened the debate around this issue, but how realistic is his plan?
An earlier report by Lord Davies' in 2011 opened with the warning that "at the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK." Both of his reports have shone the spotlight directly on the issue and demanded tangible action.
While there has been much discussion over the pros and cons of imposing quotas, it is hard to disagree with his core sentiment: that there is a serious under-representation of women on boards, and that this should be rectified as a matter of urgency.
Although my personal perspective is that quotas aren't necessarily the answer, there is no denying that simplifying the issue into targets communicates the problem in a language that the FTSE 100 and 350 are fluent in, and can act on.
For me, a potential issue is the focus on recruiting women into non-executive roles. This approach runs the risk of diverting attention away from why there are fewer women in executive management roles. When aiming for true gender equality, it's important not to create further divisions at board level. We need to avoid the problem of women being sidelined into non-executive positions, potentially creating another issue to be tackled.
To ensure there isn't a significant gender imbalance at board level, it's critical that businesses support and nurture talent from the grassroots all the way to the top. Developing this pipeline will help to ensure that talent pools are sufficiently diverse so that the best person is chosen as a board member, rather than someone of the "right" gender. Gender diversity needs to be vocally supported by senior management to help break down any perception of a male-dominated group culture which female employees may find off-putting.
It is also important to point out that there are legal barriers preventing the appointment of women on boards purely based on their gender. The 2010 Equality Act provides a narrow exemption which allows an employer to positively discriminate on the basis of gender if both candidates are equally qualified and there is an under-representation in the workforce of a particular gender. In practice, this mechanism can only be used in really exceptional circumstances to avoid the risk of a discrimination claim brought by a man who felt that he had been treated less favourably because of his sex.
Since being welcomed as a board member at my own law firm just over a year ago, I have found the experience highly valuable and felt that I was immediately seen as an equal voice. The legal sector is no different to most other professional sectors and faces the same challenges when it comes to retaining female talent. Flexible working is an important part of tackling this, as is a client-focused, progressive mindset.
Nurturing talent at grassroots level sounds like a wonderfully simple solution to the problem of boosting the number of women on boards, which of course it's not. However, with champions like Lord Davies, the spotlight on the issue is unlikely to dim anytime soon. It remains a long-term business priority requiring both government and industry support to create a more diverse culture, and give more women the confidence to believe they can progress to board level posts.