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Get women on board: Davies' clarion call


Well, it's out: Women on Boards, the report by Lord Davies of Abersoch was published on 24 February.


It must count as one of the most widely-trailed government reports of recent years: newspaper articles and radio and television broadcasts speculation on its recommendations appeared for weeks before publication and by the time Lord Davies and his steering board unveiled it last Friday, there can have been few interested parties unaware that it did not recommend quotas. This was a disappointment for some, and since the question of quotas has become something of a touchstone with regard to the report, I had better declare my position: that quotas are a – the – last resort, and I don’t believe that the UK is yet at that point. If there has been no significant progress in appointing women to UK corporate boards in three years’ time, when the steering board carries out its first review, I will argue for quotas. In the meantime, those of us in the field of human development have a clear programme of work, to play our part in delivering radical change.

I say ‘radical’, because the Davies report has laid down a comprehensive roadmap for change in the way the UK utilises the skills and experience of the female half of its workforce. It has covered both ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ aspects. On the demand side, it specifies formal action to be taken by companies: setting (their own) targets, monitoring and reporting progress against those targets, ensuring transparency about how women are progressing within the organisation, periodic advertising of non-executive director positions and crucially, for HR professionals, the development of a talent pipeline within the organisation as a feeder to the boardroom.

On the supply side, Davies opens the doors to two different populations of women well qualified to be appointed to UK boards – both those in the corporate sector and those outside the corporate mainstream – and encourages the consolidation of provision of training and development to help them take their place in the boardroom. The report’s holistic approach also harnesses the authority of the regulator (the Financial Reporting Council) in policing change through amendments to the UK Corporate Governance Code and outlines a more proactive role for both executive search firms and institutional investors. The Davies report is an authoritative roadmap – and probably the last chance for UK business to introduce company-led change before legislation is imposed.

The report is every bit a clarion call for human resources professionals as it is for chairmen, for headhunters, for training and development providers and for women themselves. They have an essential role in making change happen and the report makes it clear that work, in many companies, is needed in at least five areas: 1, increasing the retention of women (at all levels, but particularly senior women); 2, leadership development for women with high potential, targeted coaching and mentoring for women with top management potential; 3, increased effectiveness in on-ramping women after maternity leave; 4, scrutiny of the criteria for promotion and progression and the elimination of any unconscious bias that may militate against women’s progression; and 5, cultural and attitudinal change within the organisation.

This is a significant agenda and the work is going to have to be creative: everyone involved in human development has the challenge of ramping up innovation and creativity to bring fresh ideas and a new determination to these topics if we are going to deliver on the recommendations of the Davies report.

Davies’ target for all appointments to FTSE boards from March 2011 is to be two-thirds male, one-third female. For this to be achieved, the skill, experience and advocacy of HR professionals and all of those involved in the executive development of senior women will need to be fully deployed. The Davies report acknowledges that organisations invest heavily in identifying and training talented staff, but expresses the view that "this investment does not always yield results". "There is no doubt", the report continues, "that current initiatives aimed at allowing women to gain the necessary skills and attributes to serve on boards could be improved." Lord Davies has issued a clarion call for change: it’s not the rules of the game that are now being redefined, but the game itself.

Peninah Thomson (pictured) is a partner at executive coaching company Praesta