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Is quotas the only way?

Women still remain underrepresented at the highest levels of business and getting more women into the UK's boardrooms has, quite rightly, been grabbing the headlines of late. But there is still a long road ahead. Karen Gill Founder of everywoman, reports.

While the workplace has changed considerably since my business partner Maxine Benson and I set up everywoman in 1999, one thing that hasn’t changed is our commitment to our original aim, championing the UK’s businesswomen across a range of industries and sectors. Our organisation has grown to become one of the biggest membership organisations and networks in the UK for women in business. With a 14-year history and over 40,000 members worldwide, we understand the challenges women in business are facing, and have been working closely with central government and business to address these challenges.

Women remain underrepresented at the highest levels of business and getting more women into the UK's boardrooms is a burning issue that is never far from the headlines. A number of countries have already introduced quotas, with the topic currently being debated in the EU, while in the UK, we have seen a number of reports looking into addressing this imbalance. For example; earlier this year Lord Davies published his second report looking at the number of women on boards. The overall results have been positive with female FTSE100 directors increasing from just 10.5 percent in 2010 to 17.3 percent at the beginning of the year. However, the Cranfield School of Management also reported that in the second half of last year only 26 percent of FTSE100 and 29 percent of FTSE250 board appointments went to woman. This is considerably less than the first half of last year when 44 percent of FTSE100 and 36 percent of FTSE250 appointments were woman. Clearly there is still a long way to go if we are to meet Lord Davies’ target date of 2015 for 25 percent representation.

Recently everywoman has been involved with the government backed Women’s Business Council report; Maximising Women’s Contribution to Future Economic Growth’. It found that the UK's economic growth would get a dramatic boost from increasing the number of women in the workforce. In fact if women were represented in the same numbers as men, the UK’s GDP would increase by ten percent. Clearly increasing women’s representation in business makes good business sense. Companies with higher levels of women in senior positions deliver stronger organisational and financial performance as well as better returns for shareholders. Gender diversity within an organisation boosts performance, innovation, builds more effective teams and improves connections with consumers.

While it is encouraging to see government pushing business to increase gender diversity, pressure from the top is not a silver bullet. So, how can businesses break down the barriers that are stopping women getting into top-level positions? There are a number of simple steps businesses can take themselves, such as extending and ensuring flexible working is a valid option, reshaping female middle managers’ relationship with senior women role models, and including female middle managers in succession planning. However women must also be encouraged to take responsibility for their own career development. From research we conducted with AMS, our ‘Focus on the Pipeline’ found that 63 percent of HR leaders want to see women driving their own advancement. But many female middle managers are still expecting their employers to take much, if not all, the responsibility for career path clarity and opportunities for progression. Women have a responsibility to drive their own development and push themselves further in their careers. With this in mind we launched our Ambition Hour campaign on International Woman’s Day this year calling on women to ring-fence an hour each week to focus on their career goals and implement a plan to make these aspirations a reality.

While Government can help reform the business environment, encouraging women to invest time in planning their careers will result in a stronger pipeline of talented women coming through that will benefit everyone.Diversity does not simply happen, it takes time and effort for organisations to break down barriers that people often aren’t aware of. Women similarly must take charge of their careers and make sure they build the networks and contacts they need to succeed. By doing so we will all see the benefits.

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