It is undoubtedly encouraging that our Business Secretary feels strongly about the status of women in the country’s most powerful companies. Few would denounce his letter last month as a pointless exercise. Sex discrimination was outlawed almost 40 years ago and yet a failure to promote women to senior positions remains a problem.
However, it is vital that the underlying issues of women in the workplace are addressed and not glossed over with trophy appointments in the boardroom. We have had the positive action provisions in the Equality Act 2010 (although these powers have been largely ignored). We also have the proposals for 40% ‘objective’ quota of female non-executive directors on the table from the European Commission.
There is a danger however that women promoted by way of positive action will be seen as ‘token appointments’ or that ‘ghost’ non-executive directors are appointed to comply with the law but do not have a real impact.The real issue here is the one highlighted by former UK Minister for Women, Maria Miller; ensuring there is a pipeline of women progressing through the corporate structures and therefore being in a position to advance to board level on their own merits is undoubtedly the key.
Women who are held back from progressing up the career ladder are so largely as a result of competing demands of work and family life – this has historically been a major problem, but shows no signs of disappearing. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination, which is still widespread, will continue to hold women back. Around 30,000 women lose their jobs due to maternity discrimination each year, according to Maternity Action, and many more are held back after taking maternity leave or working flexibly around childcare needs.
More needs to be done to support women in the workplace at this vital stage of life if a real difference is to be made higher up the chain. Women need more information on their rights and should be confident in standing up to discrimination over their choice to have a family. Whilst legal measures put in place do encourage organisations to more actively consider women for senior roles, a career path unhampered by their wish to have a baby is vital.
Until this vital subject is addressed, female progression to the highest levels of management will continue to be a struggle, and countless letters from Vince Cable will do little to help true female representation in the boardroom.
Louise Taft is senior employment solicitor at city law firm Prolegal.