It was only in 2010 that the absence of women in senior decision making roles, including in the boardroom, was seriously considered. Lord Davies launched an inquiry into the issue, producing a report in February 2011. Since then, there has been welcome action from businesses, the government and investors to help stamp out this gender discrimination.
The evidence speaks for itself: a 40% increase in the number of women on FTSE 100 and 250 boards since the report was published and an increased acknowledgment that a female presence in the boardroom is beneficial not only for business but also for wider society. Look more closely, however, and a worrying trend rears its head. Since August 2012, progress has slowed, appearing to plateau at 17%.
No real explanation can be given for this slowdown, but many suggest that it is due to complacency. Whilst progress certainly has been made, we are a long way off side-lining the issue. Cranfield University maintains that we are still on track to achieve the report’s target of getting boards comprising 25% women by 2015 but significant ground must be made up if this is to remain realistic.
The momentum has been strong so far but it must continue if we are to prevent the UK being subjected to a European Commission quota. Trophy appointments or forcing women into supervisory non-executive roles are real dangers if legislation forces the corporations to act. This would do nothing to quash the underlying problem of the way women are perceived in the work place and attitudes to working mothers.
Recognition of the need to have a strong female executive pipeline is growing. Identifying talent and providing opportunities to capitalise on early potential shown by young women in the workforce are highlighted both by Lord Davies and Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller.
This progress should not be underestimated, as priming young men and women equally for high flying roles will help change attitudes in the long term.But, there is an elephant in the room: maternity discrimination and the challenges that working mothers face with employers. The Women’s Business Council is charged with the task of recommending how barriers to women in the workplace, particularly mothers, can be removed and we await its outcomes in the summer.
However, such a major obstacle to women’s progression should surely have been included more explicitly in the very first round of recommendations. It is an easy position to look at the work still to be done and be critical. Years of gender discrimination take years to abolish and the inroads made, and attention given to the topic, should be viewed very positively. However, a serious contributor to the problem should not be ignored.
Real progress will be made when attitudes to maternity are turned around.
Louise Taft is Senior Employment Solicitor at city law firm Prolegal