· Features

Businesses still need to improve the boardroom gender imbalance

Despite 2009 seeing a plethora of reports supporting the positive effect of having women on the board, many companies are still not seriously looking at ways in which they can improve gender diversity at board level.

A recent study by Legal Week shows even although women account for 60% of graduate intake, less than 20% of women make up the total number of partners in Britain's 30 biggest law firms. Which begs the question, why are so many organisations not tackling gender diversity in the workplace?

In 2002 the Norwegian government took the decision out of employers' hands and ruled that boards should be comprised of at least 40% women. At the time, some suggested there simply wouldn't be enough women to fill the roles - but now 44% of board-member positions in Norway are occupied by women. Considering that women still make up fewer than 12% of directors of FTSE 100 companies, it's clear that UK plc has some catching up to do.

Addressing this situation is not just merely a tick in the equality box; diversity is recognised as having a positive impact on business' profitability. The American Sociological Review, released in September 2009, found that gender diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers and greater relative profits. Organisations that value diversity tend to be more forward-thinking, better at winning new business and also customer relationships and understanding is far better -whether this is because their clients are increasingly looking to work with diverse businesses, or because women have such a high impact on consumer purchasing decisions.

Increased diversity can also make a huge difference internally; boards can, for example, avoid dangerous situations produced by ‘group-think'. Challenging others' thinking and providing an increased variety of approaches improves decision-making for a company and could ultimately impact substantially on the bottom line.

In male-dominated businesses, where women are less likely to take part in a ‘boys club' culture, women may be more likely to question certain practices and policies. This stirring of the waters can sometimes be uncomfortable for some senior professionals, but companies must recognise that challenging the status quo is an essential part of evolving and being at the forefront of business.

Women who struggle to communicate successfully in these situations need to think about how they can learn to use language suited to that particular environment, without becoming a ‘male in a skirt'. Remaining authentic to perhaps a more ‘female' style of leadership can be difficult, but it will stand out and make a difference in these male-dominated environments.

There are a few key areas where businesses and women can break down barriers and improve women's progress to more senior levels. Often companies that have a roughly equal intake of men and women at entry level find that career paths vary dramatically at certain points and this generally results in a high attrition of women at these stages.

One reason is the number of women who start having families in their thirties - this is normally prime time for reaching senior management roles that would then offer a platform to the board. Many companies struggle to handle maternity or parenthood in the workplace well, and subsequently to retain these experienced and talented individuals.  By recognising that these women may want to continue progressing, and allowing for a variety of career paths and speeds for all employees, they will start to create a culture that encourages individuals to see how their long-term plans could fit with a career at the company.

Other potential barriers are the extreme behaviours often present at senior levels. This could include the sometimes ‘cliquish' nature described above or long-hours, high-pressure cultures - all of which can put promising candidates off moving into these positions or even staying within the company. By reviewing the current situation, deciding what changes make sense for the company and putting in place supporting policies and practices (such as encouraging flexible working, etc.), the senior levels will become a much more inviting place to be.

With a lack of role models it can sometimes be hard for women to envisage how to make those positions work, but breaking through the glass ceiling will mean overcoming self-limiting beliefs. Businesses should encourage this by making role models more visible and accessible - mentoring schemes can be a great way to do this.

Changing levels of diversity at board level will mean making changes for women coming up through every rank. Even those in junior roles will be eagerly looking at what is available to them and what their progression could look like. Legal Week's statistics, that 60% of graduate take-up is female but less than 20% of women make it to partner-level, effectively means that 40% of the workforce's talent is being wasted. Businesses need to take action to redress the gender balance in the boardroom and make the most out of their female workforce in which they've spent time and money investing.

Chris Parke is MD at Talking Talent