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UK making 'glacial progress' towards gender equality, says ILM survey

Almost three-quarters of women (73%) believe the glass ceiling exists and say there are still barriers for women looking to be appointed to senior management and board-level positions in the UK, according to research by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) released today.

The report comes in the week Lord Davies is due to release his report on gender equality in the boardroom. He is expected to set a two-year time-frame for UK companies to increase the number of women on their boards, but to shy away from backing quotas.

According to the ILM survey of 3,000 managers, just under half of women (47%) support the idea of quotas, but only 24% of men do. Women aged over 45 are most in favour of quotas, with almost two-thirds supporting them, but men in the same age group are most against.

Quotas are already in force in Norway and Germany has serious proposals on the table, while France, Spain and Italy are considering the idea. ILM chief executive Penny de Valk said that although quotas drive compliance, they do not necessarily drive a commitment to the more fundamental changes that are required.

"The research reveals a real split in opinion on how best to deal with the glacial progress the UK is making towards gender equality," she said.

"The imposition of boardroom quotas in the UK would be an admission of failure for leaders. If early predictions about the Lord Davies review are correct, UK plc has two years to increase the number of women on its boards. Rather than waiting for external legislation, now is the time for employers to set voluntary targets for female representation at board and senior management level and to hold people accountable for meeting them."

Maggie Berry, managing director of careers site Women in Technology, agreed that gender quotas for the UK would not be popular among British women. She said that targets and education of middle management needed to be implemented to help drive change.

"Companies have sales targets – why don’t we have targets related to diversity? We need something to aim for and something to put pressure on companies to boost gender equality, otherwise the situation won’t improve," she said.

"However, the majority of the women that we talk to don’t want to see the introduction of quotas – they want to get the top jobs on their own merit and ability, not to make up numbers."

A report commissioned by the Government Equalities Office predicts that, at the current rate of progress, it could take six decades for women to gain equal representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies.

"There is evidence that shows having more women at board level has a positive effect on the bottom line, as well as bringing more ideas to the table," added Berry. "But there needs to be more education within organisations about the case for diversity. The CEO may be really bought into the idea, but this attitude needs to filter down to middle management who must understand the real benefits that having a more diverse team can bring."

The ILM report, Ambition and Gender at Work, finds that more than a third of women (36%) feel their gender has hindered their career progression, with almost a half (44%) of women aged over 45 believing so. Just 38% of men believe there is a glass ceiling.

A majority of female managers are in favour of a more subtle approach to gender equality in the boardroom and senior management. Almost two-thirds (62%) agreed that ‘positive action’ should be undertaken to increase the number of women in senior positions, compared with 42% of men.

"Business leaders must take responsibility for building an effective talent pipeline and make it a commercial priority to proactively identify, develop and promote potential leaders of both sexes," said de Valk.

Women’s lower confidence and career ambitions can combine to impede their progress into top roles, according to the research. Only half of women managers described themselves as having ‘high’ or ‘quite high’ levels of confidence, compared to 70% of men. Similarly, just half of women surveyed had expected to become managers when they embarked on their career, compared to almost two-thirds of men. Even among young managers, these gender differences are entrenched, with 45% of men under 30 expecting to become managers or leaders, compared to just 30% of women.

The research also finds that women are more likely than men to aspire to run their own businesses. Younger women are the most entrepreneurially ambitious, with a quarter of women under 30 planning to start their own business within 10 years.