Women on the board: the glacier is moving


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It’s been six months since the publication of Lord Davies’ report on women's representation on FTSE 100 Boards, and the progress report published by Cranfield School of Management last week reported a slow, but significant indication of progress.

This progress, by no means a sprint, certainly represents a significant movement in a frozen landscape. A reported 22.5% of new appointments to FTSE 100 boards are female, representing an increase to 14.2% of female representation, up from the 12.5% historical high.

Indeed, in the six months since the report there has been a veritable 'revolution' in corporate thinking as recruitment to boards moves beyond the traditional boundaries with 67% of FTSE 100 and 72% of FTSE 250 appointing females with no prior FTSE 100 or FTSE 250 experience. This is clearly an indication that recruiters are starting to look beyond their traditional sources.

It is easy to say 'not good enough' - and indeed there are some significant deficiencies related to the Davies Report targets, however, I would suggest, and practical evidence and experiences indicates, that a momentum has been established and the systemic flow has now started.

Consequently, as this flow continues and picks up momentum with the 'name and shame' aspects of the progress report providing bite, there are for me more challenging questions which are closer to home.

The current appointments of women are being made for a cadre of women who are ready willing and able to take on board roles and have for some while been waiting in the wings.

The more interesting dilemma to my mind is where the next wave of board capable women will emerge from. This question is particularly important to address if we are to avoid the stigma of tokenism which will do a disservice to all senior women.

The HR community has two stakes in this 'game'. Firstly as designers and custodians of the corporate career flows of women, and secondly as a major potential source of the second wave of board level women.

On the corporate career ladder process, the 'feed stock' for board level women is the executive committee and Lord Davies recognised this with an encouragement for CEOs to set their own target for women on their executive teams.

The role of HR is to understand these flows and better prepare women, through early planning, realistic and practical support, positioning board attainment as a commonplace aspiration.

For the HR community itself, it represents the largest pool of senior women in the UK business environment. Very few professions provide such an early association or exposure to the senior team of an organisation. That this is not translating easily into board level representation is baffling and frustrating. Clearly, there is a perception issue for HR as a profession - this was articulated in the recent HR and the Board Report sponsored by IDDAS.

There remains however, a more personal question we should answer as HR professionals. This question is rooted in the strategic questions facing organisations. At the recent Corporate Research Forum European HR Conference, the question of the 'Future of Work' was posed. That question can only be answered by the strategically aware, financially astute and innovative thinking individuals who can facilitate their business colleagues into a future space.

The challenge is for the HR profession to claim this strategic leadership space, and in doing so provide a ready source of board level women to pick up the mantel of the next generation.

As the speed and pace towards the Lord Davies target of 25% women by 2015 gathers pace, the challenges for the female HR community will be both corporate and personal and require a strategic and focused response. Here I have merely posed the questions, but as a community we need to look at ourselves and start mapping our own progress towards these goals.

Helen Pitcher, CEO at IDDAS


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