Ann Pickering, HR director for O2, described the news as a welcome step forward. “But, as with the 25% target, it’s crucial that these new targets are viewed not just as the finishing line but as a stepping stone to achieving that much bigger goal: true workplace diversity,” she said.
“While there has been significant progress in improving boardroom diversity, the harsh reality is that there are thousands of women who are yet to see this progress in their own place of work, with the vast majority of board-level roles still being given to men. The only way that we will create sustainable and long-lasting culture change is if we look beyond those already at the top and focus our efforts on nurturing the potential of women at every level, in every business.”
Liz Bingham, EY managing partner for talent, UK and Ireland, agreed that there is more work to be done. “Now is the time to fast forward the pace of change,” she said. “While the UK may have exceeded Lord Davies’ original targets, there is still a long way to go before we can say ‘job done’. It’s absolutely right that the government and UK business community continue to focus on this important issue and that we continue to strive to do better."
She added: “Diversity isn’t just a boardroom issue. It’s vital that we have top talent coming through at every level of an organisation. The progress made to date needs to be sustainable over the long term. Diversity comes in many shapes and sizes, and diversity of thought is just as important as the number of women around the boardroom table. Ultimately diversity is about recognising and celebrating difference.”
Dianah Worman, diversity research and policy adviser at the CIPD, suggested that in the future the targets should be even higher. “The long-term goal shouldn’t be anything but 50%, and we’ve seen plenty of support in the HR profession for this, but it’s about the steady, effective process in which it’s achieved,” she said.
“However, the bad news is that the proportion of female executive directors remains below 10%, with just eight more women in those positions across FTSE 100 companies since 2011. Non-executive directors cannot change the culture of organisations on their own.
“All efforts so far towards achieving gender diversity will be for nothing if businesses don’t understand how crucial the visibility of female executive directors – those actively involved in the day-to-day decision-making and strategy creation – is to making a real, long-lasting difference. We’re pleased to see a focus on executive directors in Lord Davies’ long-term aims, but what gets measured gets managed so we’re urging the government to introduce a separate, voluntary target for female executive directors at FTSE 100 firms of at least 20% by 2020.”
Sarah Churchman, head of diversity at PwC, also encouraged firms to look at the level women are being promoted to. "We might have reached the 25% target for boards but we must now focus our efforts where they matter most – at the executive level,” she said. “This is where women and diverse leadership teams can make a tangible difference to the culture and management of a business.
"We believe those organisations that really understand the drivers of value will set their own targets for executive level diversity. Transparent targets create accountability, which in turn generates action – and action is now needed at the executive level and below.
"As well as a focus on gender diversity we encourage the government to consider similar action to improve ethnic diversity."