The Lord Davies Review launched in 2011 sought to increase female representation in boardroom positions to 25% within the FTSE 100 companies. Now that target has been met – standing currently at 26% representation – the next stage has begun, with a new target for 33% female representation across FTSE 350 companies by 2020. In this article, Rachel Suff, Employment Relations Adviser, welcomes the progress but points out that this progress has been primarily achieved through women being appointed to non-executive positions. She explores ways that an executive talent pipeline can be built within organisations to ensure women are appointed to the very top jobs.

In February 2016 the Government announced the next phase of its women on boards review to follow on from the five-year review led by Lord Davies. Chaired by Sir Philip Hampton (GSK chairman), with deputy chair Dame Helen Alexander (chair of UBM), the new review aims to improve female representation in leadership positions of British business, ‘broadening the ambition to the entire FTSE 350 and raising the target to 33% of women on boards by 2020.’ The new review therefore has a dual approach of:

  • maintaining the momentum created by the Davies review to increase gender diversity in the boardroom of FTSE 350 companies
  • improving gender diversity in the executive pipeline of FTSE 350 companies.

Progress to date

July saw the launch of the Female FTSE Board Report 2016 by Cranfield University et al charting progress to date on achieving the targets for FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies as part of the Lord Davies review and setting out the framework for taking forward his work.

In 2011 there were 152 all-male boards in FTSE 350 companies – today there are only 15. It’s good news that the 25% target for female representation on FTSE 100 boards has been [slightly] exceeded to stand at 26% – up from 12.5% in 2011. Female board representation for women in FTSE 250 companies has increased from 7.8% to 19.6% over the same period. However, the Cranfield report rightly registers disappointment that ‘the 26.1% average of women on FTSE 100 boards has slipped back stalling at 26.0%.'

A letter on 1 August from the Investor Group of the 30% Club to the FT says it supports the target of one-third of FTSE 350 board positions to be held by women by 2020 but highlights ‘the regrettably slow progress in this area’ and calls on companies ‘to step up their efforts to achieve the 33% target.'

Further, the progress in improving the gender balance on boards has largely been achieved by increasing the representation of female non-executive directors, as acknowledged by Government; progress on improving female executive representation has been very modest – from 5.5% in 2011 to 9.7% in 2016 for FTSE 100 boards.

The CIPD therefore welcomes the much-needed focus on building female talent pipelines to increase boardroom gender diversity in executive committee positions. We also recognise that increasing the proportion of female executive directors is a tougher challenge compared with boosting the number of female non-executive directors in boardrooms. However, following our research last year we have consistently called for a separate target for female representation for executive directors in the boardroom. This view is backed up by our evidence - half of CIPD members (50%) wanted to see a separate target to help increase the proportion of women in executive director positions, with 38% disagreeing and 12% unsure. It’s disappointing that the new review continues with an overarching target that does not focus quantifiable attention on improving the gender balance of executive boardroom positions.

Building the executive talent pipeline

Looking to the future, many FTSE 350 companies have a significant challenge ahead of them to improve the representation of female employees on their executive committees. As our 2015 Report Gender diversity in the boardroom: Reach for the top spells out, HR professionals think there’s a whole raft of organisational approaches that have the potential to support the career progression of women at work:

  • An open and supportive culture that supports gender diversity is viewed as the most effective way of improving the gender diversity of boardroom executives (64% of respondents), followed by:
  • unbiased recruitment and selection practices to attract diverse talent pools (56%)
    good work–life balance policies that support female staff with caring responsibilities (50%)
  • clear career paths and promotional opportunities in middle- and senior-management roles (50%).

Coaching and mentoring for women, female sponsorship and advocacy schemes and leadership development programmes aimed exclusively at female employees were also rated positively by respondents.

You can’t manage what you don’t measure

That well-worn adage says that you can’t manage what you don’t measure and this principle directly applies to how organisations can foster greater female progression. Monitoring the gender profile of the workforce is the first step to understanding the proportion of female employees being recruited, developed and promoted – these HR activities are the foundations for improving the number of women who are appointed to senior-level roles and who gain a seat on the board.

For an organisation to fully understand what action is required to improve female progression, it needs to collect a range of data across all levels of its workforce. However, the findings from our 2015 survey show that just under half (49%) of organisations monitor the gender profile of their workforce at all levels including senior and board roles. More than a quarter (28%) do not monitor the gender profile of their workforce at all and a further 6% monitor more junior levels but do not monitor gender diversity in their boardrooms.

Much greater transparency is needed to help create the accountability and cultural dynamic necessary to affect truly sustainable change. The CIPD has consistently called for a more robust framework to help organisations measure and report on their human capital and this directly applies to how employers manage their female talent pipeline.

Our research indicates there’s no quick fix to boosting senior female representation in organisations and that employers need to take a holistic approach to building a strong and sustainable female talent pipeline to secure future senior appointments for women. This means developing a number of supportive and inclusive strategies that reach out to women employees across the workforce. This may take time but it will be worth it in the long term.

About the authors

Rachel Suff, Employment Relations and Diversity Adviser (Europe)

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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