What actually works in increasing gender diversity

What can HR professionals do to encourage more gender diversity at senior levels? Naomi Greenwood reports

Earlier this year, it was widely reported that board-level Britain is still dominated by men. Research carried out by diversity and inclusion champions showed that the FTSE 100 contains more CEOs called David than CEOs who are female (9 vs 7). 

Disappointingly, this contradicted the findings of a five-year review of board appointments by Lord Mervyn Davies, published in October 2015. Lord Davies claimed there had been a ‘near revolution’ in the boardrooms of Britain’s top companies, given that women’s representation on the FTSE 100 had more than doubled to 26 per cent in less than five years, exceeding the 25 per cent target.

Indeed, between 2011-2017, the number of women on FTSE 100 boards had risen from 135 to 294. However, on closer scrutiny, the number of female CEOs had not increased proportionately. In fact, only one additional female had joined the ranks over the same period of time. 

What this suggests is that the much-feared ‘tokenistic’ approach has been adopted by companies who, while wishing to be seen to be doing the right thing by making female appointments, are not prepared to have them holding serious positions. 

It is interesting to see how this aligns with the gender pay gap. This year, we saw the advent of mandatory gender pay reporting for businesses employing more than 250 people. Contrary to what many believe, this is not about paying men and women equally for doing the same job. Employers are now required to compare the average hourly earnings for men and women across the entire organisation. Therefore, if the majority of senior staff are male there will be a gender pay gap and the extent of that gap will be public knowledge.

So far, 10,727 employers have published their gender pay gap. ONS figures reported by the April 2018 deadline indicate a 12 per cent gap based on median hourly pay in favour of men and a 14.5 per cent gap based on mean hourly pay. That may not sound too bad. But for over a quarter of reporting employers, the median hourly pay for men was at least 20 per cent higher than for women.

A sample of companies taken by the ONS revealed a predictable pattern. There are generally more men in the top pay quartiles and a higher proportion of women in the bottom pay quartiles, reflecting where they sit within the organisation’s hierarchy. Around 28 per cent of all female employees are found in occupations with median pay below £8.95 an hour, compared to 13 per cent of men. Some 30 per cent of men work in occupations with median pay above £18.81 an hour, compared to 19 per cent of women.

Most businesses who published their results honestly confronted the fact that although the larger proportion of their workforce was often female, there is significant work to be done in addressing the gender balance of the senior management population. 

Businesses may have confessed, but will they take action? We know more women are required in top executive roles, as CEOs, finance directors, running business units, and sitting on executive committees; but how is this going to happen? We suggest:

Businesses must persist with their gender diversity programmes and appoint CEOs who will commit to achieving gender equality at the most senior level as a strategic priority. 

At root level, companies must ensure their recruitment methods contain no bias in style, tone or language. 

Unconscious bias training can help address any bias in recruitment that impacts on diversity and inclusion in all senses. 

Just as important is the cultural change necessary to help those women already in roles and keen to progress. Organisations must inspire confidence that flexible-working requests and part-time working will not prejudice career progression. 

Managers have a duty to consider how these workers can be reassured that they stand the same chance as their peers for being considered for promotion, even if they are not able to commit the same time to the business. They should consider how value can be attached to other ways in which a contribution can be made. 

Naomi Greenwood is a partner at Moore Blatch