We are all aware of family friendly policy and rights, such as maternity leave/ pay and flexible working. However, achieving a gender balanced workforce entails so much more, particularly when focused on management opportunities.

Positive discrimination quotas have been fiercely debated for many years, but are they the answer when it comes to female representation in management and the boardroom? In 2003, Norway became the first country to pass a law legislating that there should be 40% female representation on the boards of the country’s publicly listed companies. In 2014, research was published which indicated that although that quota had been met, it had not had the desired effect. In particular, it had little effect in closing the pay gap, or on increasing the number of female executives. In other words, the quota had had little discernible impact on women in business beyond hitting the target figures, and other ideas may be needed to obtain any sustainable long term change.

In the UK there are currently no formal quotas for female board representation, but there have been some great strides made by listed organisations to create a more balanced work force at management levels.

A large proportion of employers are recognising that it is important to have a gender balanced work force, particularly at boardroom and management levels, for the following reasons:

  • Women make up a significant proportion of the highly qualified talent pool;
  • Women make up 51% of the population and 46% of the economically active work force;
  • They are estimated to be responsible for about 70% of household purchasing decisions and to hold almost half of the UK’s wealth.

The representation of women on corporate boards has increased significantly in recent years at both FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies. For example, in 2004 women represented 9.4% of corporate boards of FTSE 100 companies. By 2015 this was 25% and, for the first time in the history of the London Stock Exchange, there were no all-male boards in the FTSE 100.

So, what are the typical barriers to a successful gender balanced workforce, and how have these companies successfully overcome these barriers?

Typically, the barriers to a successfully gender balanced workforce are as follows:

  • Differences in the way that men and women are mentored and sponsored throughout their career;
  • A drop off in representation at middle to senior management levels resulting from factors such as flexible working and work/life balance;
  • Gender, behavioural or communication traits (for example, women tend to undervalue their own skills, achievements and experiences);
  • The relatively low number of successful female role models which can often compound stereotypes;
  • A perception that women in leadership positions are overlooked;
  • A lack of transparency around selection criteria and informal networks which are often influential in board appointments.

Atkins PLC was voted one of The Times top 50 employers for women in 2013. They have pro-actively pursued an agenda to address the gender imbalance in the engineering industry and had conducted in-depth research to determine what inspired women to choose an engineering career, particularly against the backdrop that only 8.7% of all professional engineers in 2013 were women. That research found that engineering had an image problem amongst young women, and it was found that interventions at an early stage in education is crucial to ensure that educational and career paths are shaped at an early age. In addition, offering more flexible working arrangements seemed to be key, but that did not necessarily mean that all women were working part time. A large proportion of women were found to be working full time, but flexibly, whether from home or on hours that were different to the normal core hours.

In 2015, alongside the CIPD, O2 produced a guide for British businesses on how to support the female leaders of the future. In that guide, they recommended the following approaches:

  • True and long lasting workplace diversity requires a wide cultural shift and a genuine commitment from the people at the top;
  • Assign mentors as part of a women in leadership programme, including advice on how to build a career through honest feedback and senior management insight;
  • Set clear goals and a plan to reach them – this should be much more than just a personal development plan, and is about considering how to get women where they want to be in one, five and even ten years’ time, with a plan to help them get there;
  • Holding regular peer to peer sessions – this gives opportunities for women on the programme to share experiences and collectively seek to overcome barriers or challenges. This should ideally provide an opportunity for participants to learn from others at a similar level, network with those already on a programme and get honest feedback from their peers. That may also include organisations providing networking opportunities with others outside their own workforce;
  • Training and coaching from external experts (if the finances of the organisations allow);
  • An understanding that any participants on the programme will be expected to support other women within the organisation.

Unilever also take a holistic approach to gender balance which includes:

  • Company wide targets for continuous improvement towards gender balanced goals;
  • Training programmes for all levels of management to equip their leaders with insights into how they can manage unconscious bias (one of the biggest barriers to gender inclusion);
  • Recruitment, retention and development of female talent, including examples such as gender balanced shortlists with mandates, recruiters and HR teams to ensure that candidates shortlisted for roles are balanced;
  • Agile and flexible working to support family life, which includes looking at non-conventional career paths, job sharing, and flexible or reduced hours and home working. It also includes support from employees who decide to take a career break; and
  • Interactive networks for women in Unilever.

A number of publicly listed companies have been hugely successful in increasing the number of women in management and boardroom roles. While flexible working policies are clearly an important part of that process, it is clear that much more needs to be done to ensure a long lasting and sustained approach to create a genuine gender balance, over and above what can otherwise be hollow positive discrimination rules.