In case you hadn’t noticed, UK plc has a problem with gender equality. There are still only seven women bosses of FTSE 100 companies, and while the proportion of female board members at that level has now met Lord Davies’ 25% target, for executive board positions it still languishes around 10%.
As anyone who’s attempted to fix an engine (that doesn’t mean you, VW) will tell you, a problem on surface often has its cause deep beneath the bonnet, which is why HSBC’s ring-fenced British retail bank (the originally named HSBC UK) is taking a spanner to its talent pipeline. It announced a new target today that half of its senior management (below board level but including heads of department) should be women.
‘It’s completely unacceptable that in 2015 women are still significantly under-represented at a senior management level across the financial services industry,’ said Antonio Simoes, boss of HSBC in the UK (as opposed to HSBC UK , one of the divisions under his wider control). The proportion of women holding such positions in FTSE 100 banks is just 21%, while at HSBC UK it’s 29%.
What makes this a genuine goal rather than a vague aspiration is the bank’s commitment that half of its appointments to this level should be women. It intends to achieve this through measures such as ‘name blind’ CV screening at all levels to fight unconscious bias, a programme to help parents returning from time out of the workplace to care for children and 50:50 shortlists from external recruiters.
Obviously it would still take some time for new appointments to filter through and actually change the overall mix significantly, but in the case of its new Birmingham HQ, HSBC UK does expect to reach the 50:50 mark by 2020 as a result of high staff turnover.
It should be noted that this doesn’t apply to the rest of HSBC (eg its investment bank), which implies it believes it’s less achievable there. But it is a step in the right direction. Most big businesses are keen to redress the gender imbalance for their own commercial good, or at the very least to be seen to do so (who knows, maybe even because they believe it’s right).
While tackling the issue at the top is clearly necessary, it’s also important to recognise that that some of the reasons for the imbalance at board level are the result of decades of systemic bias at the levels below and that it therefore can’t be fixed overnight - even with the best of intentions. Fixing the pipeline may not grab as much attention as appointing a woman CEO, but it could eventually make a bigger difference in the future.