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How to improve gender equality at senior executive level

This year’s Female FTSE Board report revealed that the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies has risen to 20.7% and that the target set by Lord Davies for 25% women on boards by 2015 is within sight.

While this is good news, the most enduring gap between male and female board seats remains at the level of executive directorships. There are still only 6.9% female executive directorships on FTSE 100 boards.

We cannot change the landscape of FTSE boards without increasing the number of women at senior executive level, as this is the direct pipeline to the board. Companies must invest more effort in developing a sustainable pipeline of female talent.

In this year’s report we took a closer look at the processes and practices that companies use to identify, develop and manage their talent. We conducted interviews with talent experts (including heads of HR, talent management, learning and development, diversity and inclusion) in 12 major UK companies to ask them how they are ensuring that women are treated on an equal footing with men though their talent processes. 

Based on our research, we make several recommendations on how organisations can make sure that they manage their female talent in a strategic and sustainable way.  They include:

  • Hold senior leaders accountable for supporting women’s careers. Effective talent management will only happen if leaders and managers are held accountable for supporting women’s careers. This includes the introduction of performance targets related to developing female talent and linking them to remuneration.  
  • Make diversity an explicit focus of talent management processes. Granular gender metrics are critical in diagnosing the strengths and blockages in the pipeline of female talent. Aspirational gender targets need to be engrained in specific talent management processes. 
  • Translate unconscious bias training into practice by challenging gendered assumptions on an on-going basis in the enactment of all talent management processes, from recruitment to succession planning. Gender bias cannot be systemically tackled only by delivering unconscious bias training to individual managers. 
  • Make female talent visible through sponsorship, mentoring and exposure to senior leaders, so that women are ‘on the radar’ of key decision-makers. Organisations should ensure that women have not only mentors, but also sponsors, who advocate for them and pave the way to career-enhancing opportunities. 
  • Adopt a holistic approach and embed conversations about female talent in on-going business processes, as opposed to addressing female talent only in annual reviews. 

All FTSE companies should ask themselves are talented women within their organisation able to get to the top and around the boardroom table? If not, they must review their talent management processes to enable this.

Dr Elena Doldor is a visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management and co-author of the 2014 Cranfield Female FTSE Board report