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The GSK Emma Walmsley appointment: box-ticking or leading the way?

The appointment of Emma Walmsley as GSK chief exec is a watershed moment. But was the company pressured into choosing her, and how can we pave the way for others to follow suit?

Female representation on FTSE 100 boards has doubled over the last five years. This is impressive, but the number of women in executive directorship positions (such as the CEO or FD) remains low. Furthermore, where appointments are made, they are often criticised - as demonstrated by the recent promotion of Emma Walmsley to CEO of GlaxoSmithKline. Here, we consider ways in which companies can continue to increase female representation on their boards while retaining stakeholder confidence.

Times are changing

The appointment of Emma Walmsley has been hailed as a watershed moment. A 47-year old mother of four, she will become the first female chief executive of Britain’s third largest company, an £80 billion corporation with a global workforce of more than 100,000. Unfortunately the appointment has also attracted criticism, with some investors suggesting the role should have been filled by an external candidate. Questions have also been raised about whether the company was pressured into choosing a female candidate, although given the board’s unanimous vote this seems unlikely.

What obstacles still stand in the way?

Despite the steady progress towards gender balance, there remain barriers including:

  • Lack of candidates. The pipeline of qualified female candidates for senior roles remains limited, largely due to women leaving work to have a family or not wanting a directorship role due to concerns about work/life balance.
  • Reluctance to appoint women simply to improve the board’s gender ratio. Many boards understandably want all appointments to be based on merit, rather than simply to tick a diversity box. Such allegations are damaging for morale as well as business.
  • Unconscious bias among managers. While the days of overt sex discrimination may be numbered, there is still a subconscious bias among many managers that senior positions should be filled by a man.

How can we make the final push?

Quick fix ideas include mandatory quotas for female board members. This has been implemented in some countries (including France and Germany) but has been rejected in the UK due to fears that the quality of boards will be reduced by the inclusion of women who may be inexperienced, unqualified or overstretched.

Another option is positive action, where employers are legally allowed to favour female over male candidates if they are 'as qualified' as each other. Of course, in practice it is rare for two candidates to be equally well qualified, so genuine instances of positive action are rare.

Note that positive action is different from positive discrimination, which would include promoting someone solely because they are a woman. Positive discrimination is unlawful except in very limited circumstances, but it would be naïve to think that companies ignore gender when faced with such pressure to appoint women to senior positions. There are almost certainly management discussions behind closed doors that fall foul of employment laws and result in female promotions to tick the diversity box.

A longer term strategy seems to have been embraced by the UK government and businesses generally. At its most basic, it involves a long term commitment to keeping women in work so there is a larger pool of willing and able candidates for leadership roles. This can be achieved through a variety of means, including flexible working practices, mentoring schemes, encouraging fathers to take a greater role in childcare and reducing the gender pay gap.

This seems the fairest and most sustainable approach, but it takes time to yield results. Thanks to the government and pressure groups such as the 30% Club, it is increasingly unacceptable to field a predominantly male board and even the most 'traditional' companies increasingly accept the benefits of gender balance.

GSK’s chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, is leading the government’s campaign to increase the number of female executives and his company’s appointment of Emma Walmsley will set a strong example to other UK businesses. Rather than berating companies for not having done enough, let us acknowledge how much has been achieved already and champion those who have made the greatest changes. With this encouragement, the final push towards real equality may come sooner than we think.

Victoria FitzGerald is counsel and Melanie Wadsworth partner at Faegre Baker Daniels