Positive progress masks ongoing challenges for women in reaching the top of UK businesses

Today the penultimate Hampton-Alexander review update was published. So, what progress has been made towards achieving gender balance at the top of UK business in 2019?

Overall, it’s positive news as momentum continues towards achievement of the goal of 33% female representation in executive committee roles and their direct reports in FTSE companies by 2020. The FTSE100 are on track to reach the target and the FTSE 250 are likely to make it, if efforts persist. This progress is encouraging. However, there’s still a long way to go until we can say there is equality of opportunity for women in Britain’s boardrooms, with the top-level data masking important and ongoing challenges for true equality.

Representation of women in executive roles, rather than non-executive roles, is still far too low and needs to be addressed as a priority. Organisations won’t truly benefit from a gender diverse workforce if women are still underrepresented in operational leadership positions which have day-to-day influence and decision-making power. To address this, we recommend the establishment of a voluntary target for 20% of FTSE 350 board-level executive directors to be women by 2025 as a steppingstone towards achieving equal gender representation on boards.

Businesses need to be thinking seriously about talent planning and how they can make senior roles more accessible and attractive to women. The 2016 extension of the FTSE 100’s target of 33% female representation to also include their direct reports was a positive step, encouraging more focus from business on building sustainable talent pipelines rather than making ad-hoc token gestures.

As we near the 2020 target, companies need to be bolder and more inclusive with their efforts. There is still a lack of ethnic diversity at the top of organisations. Not all women are benefitting equally from the progress that is being made and this imbalance cannot be allowed to continue.

Gender equality is everyone’s business at work, from senior leaders’ role-modelling inclusive behaviours through to line managers, people professionals and investors who can really challenge businesses on their actions.

HR has a critical role to play in making change happen and in shining a light on the aspects of the organisation’s system, culture and processes that are preventing women reaching the top leadership positions. HR typically has a wealth of workforce data which can be interrogated to identify the barriers to women’s progression and help to focus attention on addressing those. For example, ascertain the number of men and women applying for each role and who gets the job, and look for any ‘cliff-edge’ points in careers when women tend to leave the organisation. This valuable insight can then be used to generate evidence-based solutions to making career progression more of an equal business with respect to gender.

Furthermore, people management practice across the whole of the employee lifecycle needs to be scrutinised to ensure it is fair and inclusive, including reviewing recruitment approaches, ensuring objective criteria are used for selection purposes, ensuring career paths are transparent and promotion processes are standardised and visible, as well as thinking more innovatively about flexible working and promoting it for employees at all levels of seniority. Critically, HR needs to ensure line mangers are trained on these approaches to support fair and inclusive career progression.

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.