We might have more women on boards - but we've not won yet

Achieving Lord Davies' 25% target is just the start, says O2 HR director Ann Pickering.

by Ann Pickering
Last Updated: 13 Jul 2015

Wednesday’s progress update on Lord Davies’ target of doubling the representation of women on FTSE boards to 25% was a great one. The fact that we need just 17 more women on British boards this year before we hit that 25% milestone is something we should all be proud of.
 
And yet to say ‘the end is in sight’ isn’t strictly true. The problem with targets and quotas is that fulfilling them implies that the job is done. Even if we successfully reach that 25% ‘holy grail’ by the end of the year, the journey is still far from over. Because the numbers only tell part of the story.

Yes, there are more women in the boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies now, but what about in ten or twenty years’ time? What about all the women working in more junior roles, who may be struggling to take the next step on the career ladder, or the thousands of others up and down the country who don’t work in the FTSE 100?
 
While most employers have caught on to the fact that a diverse workforce is good for business, we’re still further away from achieving it than you’d expect. At O2, we recently conducted a piece of research with the CIPD to understand how working women felt about their opportunities for progression – and what we learnt was pretty disheartening. One in five women said they believed it was impossible for a woman to reach a senior management role, and nearly 50% said that all the decision-makers in their company are male. It was also apparent that this wasn’t through women’s lack of ambition: a third said they dream of being the CEO or on the board of a company.
 
What’s clear is that the problem of diversity at work – or lack thereof – has deep roots, which will still be there even if Lord Davies’ 25% target is met this year. To achieve a genuinely diverse workplace, we need to view that 25% target as the first step towards achieving a much bigger and more challenging goal. A much wider cultural shift is required – and a hell of a lot more effort.
 
So what do we need to do? It’s becoming a bit of a buzzword, but it really is all about the pipeline - ensuring that women at every level of the organisation are getting the support and encouragement they need to progress, so that a senior role is the logical culmination of that progression.
 
This doesn’t just start on the first day at work; young women’s mind-sets are being shaped from a much earlier age. Take the tech sector as an example. The recent House of Lords Digital Skills report found that fewer than 100 of the 4,000 students currently studying for computer science A-level in the UK are female. There’s something almost Victorian about a classroom with such an extreme gender imbalance.

Clearly there’s a job to be done to show young women that a career in digital is every bit as relevant and viable to them as it is to their male classmates. It's also not rocket science to realise that this has a knock-on effect on the future diversity of the workforce. If there aren't enough girls learning digital skills at school, there won't be enough women in the tech sector 10 years later – and this idea can be applied to all industries. Girls need to be taught from an early age that ambition is nothing to be ashamed of, and that they have as much of a right to a seat at the boardroom table – or in the IT department - as anyone else.
 
Once on the career ladder, though, it’s up to employers to create the right environment for female talent to thrive at every level. At O2, our internal women’s network and women in leadership programme are all designed to do just that, nurturing the potential of women at different stages of their careers to make sure that all parts of the organisation is benefiting from our top female talent.
 
In an ideal world, there would be no need for targets, no discussion of quotas, and no place for dedicated programmes to support women at work. But such a workplace utopia will only be achieved if businesses view the Lord Davies report as a catalyst for wider change. Any way you look at it, 25% is a minority – that’s just simple maths. So while we should take a well-earned pause to recognise how far we’ve come, now is not the time to relax. Business leaders all over the country need to take up their starting positions: this is just the beginning.

Ann Pickering is O2’s HR Director.

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