Women on boards – what are the hurdles?

Business women

Lord Davies’ target of 25% of women on boards aims to increase the percentage of female board members now, but what are the hurdles that need to be overcome to maintain this?

March 2015 will be when we find out whether FTSE boards have managed to hit the 25% target. However, what about after this point? As demonstrated by the fact that targets had to be set in the first place, it is not an easy task getting women on to boards. While the FTSE boards have been somewhat successful in responding to the target set by Lord Davies, the questions now being raised are looking at how women are being encouraged and prepared to take up board roles in the longer term. For this to truly work, roadblocks set up in the past must be removed.

Looking back to see just what roadblocks have thus far prevented women from getting to these roles, it seems, these lie in the workplace and begin as early as in school education.

If we look at the current make-up of boards, a lot of members are in their 50s and 60s in terms of age. In school during the 70s and 80s, boys were encouraged to take subjects such as commerce and science, whereas girls were pushed to take softer subjects such as textiles and home economics. Those boys can now be seen filling the majority of current board positions of the FTSE companies. Meanwhile many of those girls took different routes, leading to currently holding less senior positions.

While gender treatment in schools has changed a vast amount in the last couple of decades alone, for the better, that positive change will not be seen at board level for another 20-30 years at least – if we do nothing else but rely on the education route to even out the gender gap on boards.

Workplace bias is the other hurdle. In comparison to educational changes, treatment in the workplace, in terms of senior management and board level, has been slower to catch up. Workplace bias towards women still exists and has manifested itself in a variety of ways it seems.

Women are still seen as the weaker sex, and as being less promotable as they will eventually go on to take maternity leave and break the career ladder they were on. Women are being judged on a decision they may or may not take, and as a result are being unfairly judged on. This also has an impact on women’s pay, as women in general are paid less than their male counterparts.

The assumption that all women will eventually take maternity leave is not only incredibly sexist and patronising; it is also simply not true. Tarring all women with the same brush, and subjecting them to these all-encompassing attitudes does everyone and especially the women a disservice as it perpetuates the either or mentality, in which either a family or a successful career must be chosen over the other.

That is not to say that there are not women in the world showing that a family and a career can be balanced, it is that they are very far and few between. However, another attitude and behavioural aspect, one that successful women are subjected to, is being labelled a ball breaker for making it to the top. Not only is this sexist and grossly unfair (when did you ever hear of a man being targeted for getting to the top), it is a disservice to those women who have worked hard to get where they are – it is insulting and belittles every difficult step taken and the balancing act maintained to get to the top.

While the hurdles above explain why women aren’t getting up to the levels required for boards, there is another hurdle that is stopping the current crop of board ready women from getting these positions. That is a clear lack of enough available candidates – a talent pool – for boards to search from. And this is something that head hunters and recruiters are also failing to shift. If boards do not have an adequate pipeline internally, the search is outsourced to recruitment firms. Yet, women are still overlooked. In this case, it is not only the responsibility of companies to create a pipeline for women; it is also recruiters that must look wider.

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