· 2 min read · Features

When will we talk about talent, rather than women, at the top?


Once again the issue of women in the boardroom hits the news, with the release of the updated 2015 Cranfield Female FTSE Board Report. But why are so few women represented at the top of corporate Britain?

I am left asking myself how long it might be before the question is not about women at the top, but talent at the top.

This is not about replacing great men with good women, but replacing average and good men with great women. We need the best talent to be leading organisations, regardless of gender. The issue of balance – and in particular gender balance – is important because it’s a business imperative, not a female or equality issue.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to see more skilled and talented women on the boards of business, but I also want to see them represented throughout the corporate pipeline, in particular from middle management through to executive. This is where talent is grown and nurtured and also where the problem lies – it’s here we often lose talented women.

We still find too many women exiting companies, or allowing their career progression to stagnate once they reach middle management. If we solve this we will naturally, over time, deliver more women to the top and ultimately see better performing and behaving companies.

Businesses that are gender balanced throughout are more likely to increase company performance and innovative thinking, while decreasing staff turnover intention. In fact, commentary recently presented at the United Nations suggested that companies with gender balance outperform those companies that are not balanced, and the employees are much more satisfied and happier.

Women in the workplace in corporate UK stands at around 52% of the working population, with some 60% of female graduates entering the corporate pipeline and just 8.3% reaching the executive. The CMI recently highlighted that women in the UK comprise of 60% junior managers, 40% middle managers, just 20% at senior levels and less than half of that in CEO roles. With this obvious leakage of female talent we have to accept that while we concentrate on the boardroom, the pace of change will be slow.

To speed things up in a sustainable and meritocratic way that doesn’t rely on the enforcement of quotas, we need to be realistic. We must accept that the under representation of women at the top is due to the fact that 15 to 20 years ago when these women were in middle management and needed career support, they were overlooked and underdeveloped compared to their male counterparts.

So rather than read the Cranfield stats and be disappointed, accept the fact we are where we are. We cannot miraculously take more women to the top right now, but we can encourage, support and nurture those with the desire and intent to progress. We can help them better position themselves in front of the people who can help them, and compete for these roles alongside equally talented men.

We can do so much more to support their career potential and ensure that in the future we have a great pool of talented men and women to consider for executive and non-executive roles… ensuring that the best talent can lead regardless of gender.

However, in the meantime we must remember two things:

Firstly, the number and representation of women in FTSE 100 and 250 board positions in non-executive roles is not the way to mark progression... the number attaining and developing executive roles is. And it’s these figures we should be paying attention to and improving.

Secondly, we never set out to replace great men with good women, but replace average and good men with great women. That has to be the goal we look to achieve.

Until this is accepted and successfully delivered, a time when we talk about talent rather than women at the top is still a few years away.

Heather Jackson is founder and chair of An Inspirational Journey. She is also founder and chair of The Balanced Business Forumthe world’s only gender balanced leadership conference