Fawcett Society: We need positive action to break through the glass ceiling

Anna Bird, acting CEO of the Fawcett Society, outlines how far big business has to go on gender equality, and what strategies may help it to redress the balance.

On the day the government-commissioned Davies Report recommends UK-listed FTSE 100 companies should aim to have their boards 25 per cent female by 2015, Anna Bird, acting CEO of the Fawcett Society, outlines how far big business has to go on gender equality, and what strategies may help it to redress the balance

The most recent Female FTSE 100 report reveals the percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards is 12.5 per cent, showing a three-year plateau in the representation of women in leadership positions of UK companies. Despite many years of tapping away at the glass ceiling, it is stubbornly intact.

This is not just about equality in the workplace, it is about access to power. Not only are nine out of ten of our top business leaders  men, there are currently only four women out of 23 in the cabinet.

Whether it be in Davos or Westminster, decisions which will affect all of us are being made without women at the table. At the current pace of change, girls born today may never see equal numbers of men and women at the top table.

Set against the backdrop of the deepest spending cuts since World War 2, the need for radical action is more, not less important. Women already experience entrenched and unjust economic inequality in the UK. Women earn and own less than men – the gender pay gap rests stubbornly at 16% and 64% of low paid workers are women.

Prising open boardroom doors and ensuring women have equal access has proved one of the most challenging issues when it comes to work place equality.

Despite an increasingly robust business case for female leadership, growing awareness of the issue and publicity around it, women’s representation at the top is stagnating, and in some cases shows signs of regressing.

We are wasting talent and losing opportunities for growth and innovation. Evidence shows that more women in senior management and boardrooms leads to better corporate performance, a boost to the bottom line, and allows businesses to tap into new insights about their customers, when women currently hold 80% of consumer power.

To see the benefit we need to deliver a critical mass – at least 30% women according to research by McKinsey.

We can no longer pretend that boards are recruited as a result of merit. The government should impose a gender balance requirement when it comes to the makeup of boards – a quota system – as part of a wider package of measures to get more women at the top table of business.

The evidence is there that positive action does the job. Looking across comparatively at countries such as Norway, quotas have proved effective in creating a tidal wave of change. In just six years female board representation rose from seven per cent to 44 per cent.

Of the 25 countries in which more than 30% of parliamentarians are female, the vast majority have got there through positive action. Quotas provide an opportunity to open up boards so that women have the opportunity to compete on an equal footing and the best female business talent can take its rightful place at the top table.

Implementing positive action measures means we will be able to take a sledgehammer to the glass ceiling.

Without implementing some form of positive action to redress the lack of women in boardrooms and political life, the government’s commitment to ensure gender equality in the workplace is simply an empty promise to women and an empty threat to those monopolising power.

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