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Only 7% of FTSE CEOs are women – that’s bonkers

Written by Ann Francke OBE Tuesday 13 October 2020
All the evidence proves the link between good representation of women at senior levels and strong financial performance. So why the slow progress?
anne francke

For the latest Better Managers Briefing I spoke to Professor Susan Vinnicombe of Cranfield University, and Dr Elena Doldor, reader in organisational behaviour at Queen Mary University, the authors of the recently published Female FTSE Board report, about strategies that improve women’s progression into executive roles, and whether targets rather than quotas might hold the key.

Slow meaningful progress on gender equality

Although Sue applauds that the proportion of women on boards across the FTSE 100 almost tripled in the last decade, she points out that very few women occupy an executive director role, and that women are still failing to secure the top jobs. There are just seven female CEOs across the FTSE 100, and around 13% of female executive directors. “When we think that 93% of FTSE 100 CEOs are men, that really is quite appalling,” Sue says.

Women now occupy 40% of non-executive roles across the FTSE 350, but they are conspicuously absent when it comes to the big jobs such as committee chairs. Despite representing half of the working population, CMI research has found that women are 40% less likely to get promoted than their male counterparts, prompting questions about whether appointments are tokenistic, a situation Sue describes as ‘glass ceilings within glass ceilings.”

The importance of female representation at executive director level

All evidence suggests that a diversity of perspectives and views enriches the dynamics on the board. Women bring a different dynamic to the table – whether that’s by looking at issues through a different lens or using a different style of questioning or different listening skills.

The objectives of the Lord Davies and subsequent Hampton Alexander reviews were not simply about boosting gender diversity on boards but impacting gender diversity at all senior levels. Moving the needle on gender diversity without having women in key executive roles is that much harder, Sue warns.

“It's not just enough to have a critical number of women. You've got to have women in influential roles like CEOs and other executive director roles to make a difference,” Sue says, “because the executive directors are the ones who run the business day to day; they have a bigger voice at the table.”

Are targets effective?

The UK stands out as probably the only major economy to have adopted voluntary targets rather than mandatory quotas as a means to progress women’s representation on boards and in senior leadership roles – and targets are fast becoming normalised business practice.

“Targets don’t undermine meritocracy, they enable it” asserts Elena, adding that they help to level an uneven playing field. “What we've seen is that targets force those organisations to have a more data-driven approach to making people decisions and to scrutinise bias across a variety of talent management processes,” she says. “The value of targets ultimately is to force organisations to ask themselves how they should develop, recruit and promote talent at junior and mid-career levels in order to have that leadership balance five or ten years down the line.”

A big issue remains how we make leaders accountable for targets. Hardwiring target achievements and leadership performance appraisal is far from being widespread practice.

Covid-19: a hindrance or a help to diversity?

The pandemic presents both an opportunity and a danger to diversity, my guests suggested. Bearing in mind that women are often having to take on the lion's share of caring responsibilities at home, the last few months have been enormously stressful for women. “Moving forward through this pandemic, organisations need to be super-cognisant of reaching out to everyone who is shouldering a lot of stress,” Sue observes.

Elena believes that the pandemic has normalised flexible working and presents an opportunity to think more creatively about how we work. But she agrees that flexible and remote working exerts an unequal strain on women vs men. “We see awareness of this among organisations but what we don't yet see is tangible action to address it. I doubt we will be able to sustain this upwards trajectory towards more gender-balanced leadership unless we do that.”

A shift in the paradigm of leadership in the pandemic?

Both women are hopeful that the positive attention on effective pandemic-management by  female political leaders will raise the profile of women’s distinctive leadership styles – in particular the importance of communication, collaboration and the ability to admit when they don’t know the answer to problems. “I'm hoping that we will shift in our view of what it takes and what makes a good leader,” Sue says.

“The irony is that against a backdrop of congratulatory media coverage of visible heads of states, women in junior and mid-career roles across all sectors are being squeezed out of leadership pipelines,” Elena says. “My hope is that this collective enthusiasm for positive examples of female leadership during the pandemic will translate into sustained attention to the pipeline of female talents.”

Intersectionality of gender and ethnicity

Use of the broad term “BAME” masks huge differences, particularly the lack of opportunities for black people. “One of the big concerns at the moment is just trying to grapple with the language and understand how you break [the data] down,” Sue says.

“We need language that allows us to examine and articulate white privilege, which is a very painful point to raise in the workplace today,” Elena adds.

“I don't think gender targets can be fully inclusive without addressing ethnicity and the fact that career experiences of women of colour can be radically different,” Elena warns. “We need a more intersectional approach to D&I in general and we need to get more comfortable with articulating racial issues in the workplace,” Elena adds.

Why not watch our conversation in full?

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