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How HR can support gender diversity at senior level

Quotas are not the way forward for increasing diversity at senior level, but HR has a role to play

One of the big challenges within HR is how we can work with senior leaders to support true gender equality in our organisations, with debate ongoing on the effectiveness of compulsory gender quotas for board positions.

I do not believe that they are the way forward. I think they are a short-term fix and fail to tackle structural issues within our workplaces that limit diversity. At a time where just 31% of organisations have taken action to improve the gender diversity of their board (CIPD 2015), HR has identified a problem but has failed to tackle it.

The importance of equality within companies is now well documented. Reflecting the wider diversity of society both ensures a better understanding of the business’ customer base and improves the external perception of the organisation. Furthermore, women are an under-utilised source of high performers at a time when attracting top talent is harder than ever.

So how is the UK performing? In July this year FTSE 100 companies finally managed to hit the 25% target set by Lord Davies in 2011. Of course that is to be celebrated, but disappointingly the majority of this increase has come from female non-executive directors. These female NEDS now compose 27.9% of board members across FTSE 100 companies, compared to just 8.4% for executive directors.

Quotas have been introduced in some countries as a way to force companies to increase female representation in the boardroom. However, they have had mixed success, with no country that has introduced one reaching their targeted figure. Norway leads Europe with 35.5% representation – slightly behind its 40% quota – while Italy is currently only at 6% with a quota of 33%. This is not to ignore the positive results that a small number of countries have had: France is ahead of its interim target with almost 30% women on boards.

So why has change been so slow? In my opinion the problem is the continued belief within organisations that diversity is just a ‘HR process’.

Executive Online found almost 33% of senior executives doubt the value of boardroom gender diversity. Sadly this does not seem to be improving among younger generations, with 38% of junior managers seeing diversity as a ‘tick-box exercise’ according to 2015 Roffey Park research.

Furthermore, HR is still not championing the necessary changes to workplaces that would most effectively support equality. A 2012 Talking Talent study of 2,500 professional UK women found 71% highlighted rigid career options and 79% inflexible working practices as the main barriers for career development. HR needs to innovate and inspire, rather than retaining its focus on policy and compliance.

Finally, I believe quotas restrict our understanding of diversity to a narrow set of characteristics, ignoring complex cultural identities. When considering board composition we should be accounting for factors such as economic, educational, and social backgrounds, among other criteria, rather than limiting our focus to a single aspect of a person.

Mandatory quotas will not tackle the lack of development and progression opportunities for women. Instead we need to support a cultural shift that will create sustainable, diverse talent pipelines. HR, working with senior leaders, must take the path of most resistance that will produce real change in our organisations, rather than simply implementing a quick fix.

Jabbar Sardar is director of human resources and organisational development at Cafcass. He is ranked seventh on the HR Most Influential Practitioners list 2015.